For the LSU baseball team to get where it wants in 2012, there’s not much mystery about which facet of the game has to be better than a year ago.
In a game that has become more dependent on pitching than ever, it’s an absolute must that the Tigers’ talented cache of arms steps to the forefront.
That notion sure doesn’t faze the three leading men who will begin the season as LSU’s weekend rotation.
Sophomores Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and Kurt McCune form the backbone of the promising pitching staff after all three turned in solid rookie campaigns – albeit in different phases – of a 2011 season when LSU went 36-20 but struggled to a 13-17 SEC record and missed both the league and NCAA tournaments.
All three are back, a year older and wiser and with more defined roles – Gausman as the ace, Eades as the one set to tap into his potential and McCune as the steady and reliable pitcher who personifies the Tigers’ bulldog attitude on the mound.
“The thing I love about the three of us a group is that all of us know you’ve got to fighting to keep your spot,” said McCune, one of the biggest surprises in the SEC last season with a 7-3 record and a 3.31 ERA in 89.2 innings of work.
“I know myself, I’m gonna just keep pitching the way I’ve been taught to pitch my whole life. The things that have worked for me in the past are what’s going to help me in the future.”
No reason for Gausman to think any differently.
This is in all likelihood his final college season because he is a draft-eligible sophomore. The lanky Colorado native is projected as a probable first- or second-round draft pick and enters the season with a fast ball that consistently crackles in the mid 90-mph range.
Controlling that velocity and learning not to rely solely on his heat were goals Gausman aggressively worked on during his offseason after he went 5-6 with 86 strikeouts in 89.2 innings of work.
Gausman made the right progress and picks up where he left off last season – as the Tigers’ Friday-night ace and a pitcher LSU will count on to set the tone every weekend.
“That’s what I came here to do,” Gausman said. “I got my chance at the end of the season, but now I feel like I’m a seasoned vet. I just know baseball a lot more. I know which pitches I need to make in certain situations.”
Eades remains the wildcard of the trio, and outside the LSU program, a relative unknown.
He was limited early last season as he worked back to full strength after labrum surgery cost him his entire season in 2010. Late last season, though, Eades emerged as the Sunday starter and he followed that by earning Pitcher of the Year honors in the Cape Cod League over the summer.
Now, with his arm as healthy as it has been for several years, Eades is poised for a breakthrough season. His velocity is back in the low and mid-90mph range consistently and he learned how to utilize his second and third pitches at the Cape.
“I’m not just going to settle and be comfortable,” Eades said after going 4-1 as a freshman. “I want to keep working and be the best I can be. There’s too many other pitchers out there busting their butts to get to Omaha for me not to do everything I can every time I step on the mound.
“This summer I really tried to concentrate on becoming a better pitcher and having command on all of my pitches. I also focused on executing my fastball on both sides of the plate and trying to develop my changeup. I want to take all that I’ve worked on and go forward with it in the spring.”
First-year pitching coach Alan Dunn got to know his three aces through video first and then up close and personal when they got back to campus in August.
Although Dunn, a longtime pitching coach at the pro level, recognized he had a full deck to work with, he said he was even more impressed when he got to know them and saw them in action.
“These guys are very athletic guys and that’s a great foundation to start with,” he said.
One other common thread that connects the three starters is a competitive nature, and that should only make the Tigers that much better.
“We all to be the guy and it’s good to have a pitching staff like that,” Gausman said.
Added Eades, “We’re going to push each other. It’s a friendly competition, but it’s definitely competition.”
As good as those three were last year and figure to be this spring, they will have challengers to their weekend thrones.
Junior Joey Bourgeois is back after missing 2011 while he recuperated from elbow reconstruction surgery and he has shed 30 pounds. He goes into the season with an undefined role, but he started 12 games in 2010 and would be a logical candidate for mid-week starts.
The bullpen was a major sore spot last season and LSU coach Paul Mainieri made a point of shoring that area up in the offseason.
Matty Ott is gone, a 10th-round pick by Boston, leaving the closer’s job wide open. Three players figure to get a shot at finishing games – Nola, junior-college transfer Nick Goody and sophomore Nick Rumbelow.
Neither Mainieri nor Dunn is in a big hurry to peg any of the trio as the closer. Instead, LSU may use a committee.
“When you have depth and possibilities you have to be better because then you have options,” Dunn said. “I want every one of those guys to take that approach of wanting the ball and wanting to contribute. We need these guys to do that.”
Besides the closing crew, the Tigers’ relief staff is more diverse than a year ago as well.
Juniors Kevin Berry and Chris Cotton and sophomore Joe Broussard headline a group of veterans, and Cotton will have plenty of left-handed company with the infusion of newcomers led by Brent Bonvillain, a transfer from Nicholls State and Delgado.
Hard-throwing sophomore Mike Reed is back in the fold after redshirting in 2011 and three freshmen could also bolster the depth: Aaron Johnson, Christian Trent and Braden Strickland. Another rookie, Carson Baranik, is suspended indefinitely after a weekend arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence.
“We need guys who can get hitters out. The more options you have, the better team you are. I hope we have several options to rely on.”