Three full months sit between now and the start of practice for the 2012 college baseball season, a season when LSU has plenty of motivation and a point to prove.
Before the Tigers begin that long waiting period, they’ll wrap up their fall rehearsal this week with the Purple-and-Gold World Series.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri will divide his roster into two teams for games Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, starting at 3:45 p.m. the first two days and 3 p.m. on Friday at Alex Box Stadium.
While nothing permanent will be decided in those three games, they are a chance for Mainieri and his coaches to form some ideas about their revamped team and come up with a blueprint to work with when practice commences in January for the Feb. 17 season opener against Air Force at The Box.
Heading into his sixth season, Mainieri is upbeat about what he’s seen so far in three weeks of fall work.
“There are a lot of things I like about this team from what we’ve seen this fall,” Mainieri said. “I think we’re slowly but surely rounding into shape and (last week) were some of the best practices we’ve had.”
Pitching shapes up as LSU’s strength, anchored by sophomores Kevin Gausman, Kurt McCune and Ryan Eades. Another veteran who started at times in SEC play the year before is also back after rehabilitating from elbow reconstruction (Tommy John) surgery following the 2010 season, right-hander Joey Bourgeois.
A handful of other veterans who have yet to blossom add to a staff that is under the watch of new pitching coach Alan Dunn.
“We’ve got tremendous potential on our staff with a new pitching coach, and they’re really starting to buy into what he believes in,” Mainieri said.
In the field and at the plate, LSU doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill, although one void is massive.
The primary loss among the starting nine is Mikie Mahtook, the All-American center fielder who was the Tigers’ leader in most offensive categories as well as an emotional sparkplug.
Without Mahtook, the offensive team leader will be Mason Katz, who is expected to move back to right field after finishing the 2011 season at first base after a hand injury. Seniors Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover also return, along with sophomore JaCoby Jones, now in center field, Raph Rhymes, Alex Edward and Ty Ross.
“I feel like we’ll have a very solid lineup, very steady defensively at every position,” Mainieri said. “We may not have a superstar hitter like Mikie Mahtook, but I think we’ll be more solid 1-9 than we have been the last few years. We need guys to be more consistent and productive in clutch situations and I think they’ll be much more confident in those situations.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at the Tigers as they prepare to wrap up fall drills.
Gausman, McCune and Eades are the cornerstones and those three are written in as the weekend starters for now.
That’s nothing new to Gausman and McCune, who spent all last season making weekend starts. Eades joined them late in the season and had the most productive summer of the trio, earning Pitcher of the Year honors in the Cape Cod League.
Mainieri said Eades had been limited in fall work after some shoulder soreness near the end of the Cape Cod season, but has thrown a few innings since and has thrown well.
Glenn, a left-hander from Houston, could work his way into the mix as a weekend starter, but is projected right now as a primary mid-week starter. Bourgeois could also factor into that role as well.
The bullpen was a sore thumb last season but could potentially be a strength in 2012.
With Dunn’s guidance, a cast of returnees appear poised to blend with a few newcomers to provide the foundation.
Sophomore righty Nick Rumbelow had a strong summer and “has taken a huge step forward,” Mainieri said.
“He looks like a guy who could battle to be a closer,” Mainieri said. “He’s developed two great changeups – one he throws consistently for strikes and another power one he throws for a strikeout. He backs that up with a 93 mph fastball.”
Newcomer Brent Bonvillain and Glenn give the Tigers some new left-handed options out of the bullpen. Mainieri also mentioned sophomores Mike Reed and Joe Broussard for their emergence as middle-inning options.
Closing games was a major bugaboo for LSU last season, despite having the school’s all-time saves leader, Matty Ott. As effective as Ott was over the course of his career, blown saves against Florida and Mississippi State and Berry’s ninth-inning meltdown against Arkansas in a 4-3 loss played a major role in costing the Tigers a spot in the SEC Tournament, and likely an NCAA Tournament berth.
To remedy that, Mainieri and Dunn may rely on a multi-closer approach, similar to what Florida did en route to a national runnerup finish in 2011.
The three candidates for time in that role are Goody, freshman Aaron Nola and Rumbelow.
Mainieri said Nola “will play a vital role for (LSU)” whether he’s the closer or not. Goody has been a bit erratic in fall practice, but “when he’s been good, he’s been real good.”
“We’ve got three guys competing for that job and I like that,” Mainieri said. “We’re not going to define who our closer is yet. That’s an ongoing situation.
“To win in the SEC, somebody has got to emerge as a shutdown closer and if it’s more than one guy for us, that’s fine with me.”
Overall, Mainieri said the pitching staff will be the foundation for whatever success the Tigers have in 2012.
“I feel very good about the pitching staff,” he said. “I think we’re going to be deep and talented and that’s what you have to have with the way the game has changed the last few years. We’re much better on the mound now than we have been.”
Ross has apparently reasserted himself as the starter with a solid offseason in which he shed 30 pounds.
As a freshman, Ross was solid defensively, but batted only .224 with just six extra-base hits in 148 at-bats.
One of the first things Mainieri did when the season ended was throw the starting job at catcher wide open and Ross responded by working hard to reclaim his spot.
“He’s more athletic, he’s much quicker, he’s improved his fast twitch,” Mainieri said. “He’s made big strides offensively and defensively.”
Senior Jordy Snikeris will be the main backup after an injury-plagued junior campaign.
Moore will be the No. 3 catcher, with senior utility man Grant Dozar also available behind the plate after starting three games there last season.
This is one spot that is up for grabs with veterans and newcomers battling for the job.
Moore has been effective there in fall practice and could give the LSU batting order a reliable left-handed bat.
Edward and Dozar both got some time at first last season.
It’s conceivable Eades could get a look at first base as well. He’s a switch-hitter who produced big offensive numbers as a senior at Northshore-Slidell in 2009.
A surprise of the fall has been Yocum, who will head into the winter as the likely starter at second.
After two solid years at Feather River Community College in California, Yocum has stepped in nicely and given Mainieri some options.
“We weren’t really sure what we had there, but this kid is a really solid ball player,” Mainieri said. “He plays a great second base and puts the bat on the ball.”
Austin Nola will anchor the LSU defense from the middle of the diamond again after he eschewed a chance to jump to pro ball with the Toronto organization.
After a rocky start last season, Nola finished strong in the field. His offensive numbers dipped a bit, but he will remain a fixture in the middle of the lineup when the season begins.
There won’t be many chances to play short behind Nola, but Didier and Yocom could all fill in if needed. Hanover is also a viable candidate to move back to second – where he started all of 2010 – if needed.
Hanover is slated stay at the hot corner for the second year in a row after he delivered a steady defensive season there in 2011.
Offensively he wasn’t spectacular, batting .311 as a junior and contributing a single-season school record 15 sacrifice bunts.
Should Hanover get hurt or if Mainieri needs to shift him to second, the backups at third include Moore, Yocum and – in an emergency – Didier, Dozar and Edward, all of whom have started there during their careers.
Jones has nailed down the center field spot after moving there during summer ball and showing he is athletic enough to take over for Mahtook.
In a roller-coaster freshman campaign, Jones hit. 338, with four home runs, 32 RBIs and 12 steals.
“He’s the best athlete on the team,” Mainieri said. “He has a lot of Mahtook in him and I think he’s ready to step up and be one of our offensive leaders.”
Katz is back in right field and will bat in either the three- or four-hole after a strong finish lifted his average to .337 by the end of the 2011 campaign. He led LSU with 21 doubles and was second to Mahtook with 53 RBIs.
Mainieri would like to move Rhymes to left field if he recovers enough from Tommy John surgery to be able to throw.
Should Rhymes not be ready to play in the field, he would be the DH after hitting .360 with 18 doubles and 42 RBIs in his Division I debut season. Capable of hitting in any of the top four spots in the batting order, Rhymes will be in the lineup somewhere.
If and when Rhymes is ready to get on the field, the list of potential DH candidates is long, with Slaid and Edward leading the way.
Slaid had a sizzling summer season with the Danville Dans of the Prospect League, hitting .340.
“He had a great summer and it’s continued into the fall,” Mainieri said. “He just keeping getting hits and it’s hard to ignore a kid who’s doing that.”
Fields has struggled this fall and “has a lot of work to do” to get into the mix as an outfielder or DH, Mainieri said.
Sciambra could land a role as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.