“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
--- A. Bartlett Giamatti
At the core of baseball exist the harsh realities of failure and heartbreak.
Both are inevitable one way or another and they loom on the horizon for every team except a few.
What also punctuates a baseball season, though, is the journey through those hiccups and inevitable despair. A well-traveled road of joys and elation.
LSU got much more heartbreak than it expected last spring, the indignity of missing the NCAA Tournament when the Tigers probably could’ve/should’ve been part of the field.
Now, just as Giamatti so eloquently wrote, it all begins anew in the spring (almost) and LSU will use the heartbreak as motivation to get back where it expects to be.
The 2012 voyage gets started Friday when the Tigers tangle with Air Force at 7 p.m. LSU will face Alcorn State at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and then wrap up the weekend vs. the Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Last May, the Tigers finished 36-20 and were left standing at college baseball’s altar, uninvited to the NCAA Tournament despite a late-season push.
The sting has subsided, but hasn’t completely disappeared. That process begins against Air Force and Alcorn State.
“We’re done looking at that,” senior shortstop Austin Nola said. “It was a hard thing to swallow. We’re ready to forget about it and start playing ball. There’s no more thinking in the past.”
Nola may take that path, but his close friend and infield mate Tyler Hanover isn’t ready to completely let go.
“It’s going to stick with us for a while,” he said. “Especially how disappointing that feeling was. That’s something we have to remember if we want to get back to the tournament and Omaha, which is always our goal.”
To rekindle the glory of three seasons ago when Nola and Hanover were part of LSU’s sixth College World Series championship team is going to take some rebuilding.
The Tigers will take the diamond without Mikie Mahtook, the best all-around offensive player Mainieri’s five-year tenure. The other major holes to fill are those left by pitchers Ben Alsup and Matty Ott.
Mainieri revamped his coaching staff, bringing in 23-year Major League Baseball veteran Alan Dunn as the pitching coach. Dunn’s job is to continue to mold the talented weekend rotation of hard-throwing right handers – Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and Kurt McCune – and restore confidence in a bullpen that wobbled through 2011 and wound up costing LSU a spot in the SEC Tournament, and subsequently the NCAAs.
“Obviously the loss of Mikie is a great loss,” Mainieri said. “He’s one of the great players in the history of LSU baseball. At the same time our team relied so much on Mikie to come through with the big hit or the big play, not to say the rest of the guys stood around to watch him play all the time, but there was a sense that ‘if I didn’t come through, then Mikie will.’
“We don’t have a tremendous amount of power, but we do have a lot of good line-drive guys. We need everybody to be a tough out and be that kind of line-drive hitter.”
On the mound, an infusion of talent and the return of a veteran who showed flashes of promise in 2010 before his elbow required Tommy John surgery give Dunn some versatility.
The three key newcomers are Cody Glenn, Aaron Nola and Nick Goody. Glenn is a left-hander who will factor in as a mid-week starter at some point, while Nola, Goody and sophomore Nick Rumbelow are all vying for innings in the closer’s role. Nola could also get a shot at starting.
Junior Joey Bourgeois is back from the Tommy John procedure and is 30 pounds lighter. His velocity is back to normal if not even a little livelier and he could fill a role anywhere from a late-inning door-slammer to a starter.
Depth and versatility should be more prominent in the bullpen as well, with three other southpaw newcomers besides Glenn.
There seem to more pieces and movable parts all over the roster and Mainieri is more upbeat than usual that this team is poised to bounce back.
“Everybody is thrilled this is opening day and hopefully this will be a special season,” Mainieri said.
Special for sure.
Will it end in heartbreak again? Fate seems to be more favorable to LSU this season, and the end of the Tigers’ season figures to come a lot later than last year.
“This is why we all came here – to play on a great team that has a chance to get to Omaha,” Hanover said. “This is when we start it, but we know it’s going to take a lot of hard work and focus to get where we want to be.”