Nobody has to explain to LSU coach Paul Mainieri how big a weekend this is for the two teams headed to Baton Rouge to face the 11th-ranked Tigers.
After all, he walked in their cleats not all that long ago.
|Michigan vs. LSU: 7 p.m. Friday, 6:30 p.m. Sat.; vs. Notre Dame -- Noon Sat., 10 a.m. Sun.|
And a past history of disappointment at this stage of the early season makes this weekend big for LSU, as well.
In the final weekend before the 10-week, 30-game grind of SEC play commences, the Tigers (11-2) entertain Michigan and Notre Dame at Alex Box Stadium in a three-team round-robin tournament.
LSU will face the Wolverines (6-6) at 7 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday and then play host to the Fighting Irish (5-4) at 3 p.m. Sunday and 6:30 p.m. Monday. In between, UM and Notre Dame will play each other twice – noon Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.
The weekend is key for the Tigers because it’s another step in the process to get ready for league games.
The impact is a little different for Michigan and Notre Dame. It’s a centerpiece of the season for the Wolverines and Irish because it’s a chance for them to come to play David to a college baseball Goliath.
“This is an opportunity for them to come down here and make a statement,” said Mainieri, who coached Notre Dame for 12 seasons before taking the LSU job. “These were always games that my Notre Dame teams looked forward to because we knew we could gain some respect and also get the kind of experience that really helped us as we moved into the heart of our season. That’s what I expect from these two teams.
|Notre Dame vs. LSU: 3 p.m. Sun., 6:30 p.m. Monday; vs. Michigan -- Noon Sat., 10 a.m. Sun.|
“They’re two very talented teams who have high expectations this year and this is a chance for them to really get their seasons going.”
LSU won’t be short of motivation either, starting with the head coach.
For one thing, tangling with northern teams right before SEC play has been a struggle for the Tigers the last two times they’ve done so.
In 2010, Kansas came to Baton Rouge and won two of three games after LSU rolled through its first 12 games unbeaten. The season before, the Tigers were off to a 9-0 start when Illinois stunned them with a series win.
“In a couple of those bigger series leading up to the SEC the last few years, we’ve been caught looking ahead and not giving those teams our best games,” senior Grant Dozar said. “We know we have to come out and play good solid baseball because that’s what we’re going to get from them.”
What the Tigers should get from their coach is an appreciation of who is in the opposite dugout this weekend.
“When you think of college athletics, the names Michigan and Notre Dame are two of the top programs there are, primarily because of football, but those are two names with a lot of history and tradition in every sport,” Mainieri said, pointing out that the Wolverines and Irish have both sent a dozen or more player to Major League Baseball.
“They have great tradition and history, and when you throw LSU into the mix and play six games at a great place like Alex Box Stadium, it makes for a really exciting weekend.”
Fun, but also business.
LSU enters on a six-game winning streak and many roles have started taking shape. But Mainieri said he’s still evaluating his team to make sure the Tigers are at their best for when Mississippi State visits March 16-18.
“We’re approaching this like it’s an SEC weekend,” he said. “I think we’ve learned a lot about our team. I like where we’re at and this is one more step to get us prepared for the gauntlet of the SEC schedule.”
Getting to know Michigan
Coach: Rich Maloney, 10th season (325-216)
2012 record: 6-6
On the mound (vs. LSU): Sr. RH Brandon Sinnery (0-0, 4.15 ERA, 17.1 IP, 10 SO/4 BB), Jr. RH Ben Ballantine (1-0, 1.66 ERA, 21.2 IP, 12 SO/4 BB) or Jr. LH Bobby Brosnahan (2-1, 3.26 ERA, 19.1 IP, 11 SO/4 BB)
At the plate: OF Michael O’Neill (.480, 8 2B, 5 HR, 16 RBIs), OF Will Drake (.372, 4 2B, 3 3B, 12 RBIs), 1B Brett Winger (.357, 3 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBIs)
Did you know: The Wolverines won the Big Ten Conference three years in a row from 2006-08, played in three straight regionals, advanced to the Super Regional in 2007 and nearly knocked off eventual national champion Oregon State before the Beavers qualified for Omaha. UM knocked off Vanderbilt twice in Nashville in regional play the season when the Commodores spent much of the season ranked No. 1
Maloney coached against Mainieri for seven years when he was at Ball State and the LSU coach was in South Bend and then four years in the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry, which he called a highlight of the Wolverines’ annual non-conference schedule.
“He had one of the best programs in the Midwest for a long time at Notre Dame and kind of set a blueprint for a lot of us,” Maloney said. “We’ve been friends for a long time and I’m very happy for the success he’s had here. When he invited us to come down and play, it was a no-brainer. It’s a chance to play an elite program at one of the great venues in our sport.”
Michigan is a work in progress after an uncharacteristic 17-37 season in 2011, the first losing season under Maloney. The roster features 13 freshmen and nine sophomores, so even Maloney is still learning about his team after three weekend trips to Florida have resulted in a .500 record with five games decided by one or two runs.
“This part of the season, we’re trying to find ourselves and see who fits into what roles,” Maloney said. “We’ve had some pretty decent starting pitching, but we haven’t been able to close up shop so well. We’re trying to find the right mix of guys for the late innings.”
The Wolverines are hitting .268 as a team and averaging 6.7 runs. They have clubbed 10 home runs and 25 doubles.
“We’ve been swinging the bat well, but we’re running into a different level of pitching this weekend,” Maloney said. “We’re facing the No. 1 and 2 guys from both teams, so this will be a good test for us.”
Getting to know Notre Dame
Coach: Mik Aoki, 2d season (28-33-1)
2012 record: 5-4
On the mound (vs. LSU): So. RH Sean Fitzgerald (1-1, 9.82 ERA, 11 IP, 8 SO/2 BB), Sr. LH Steve Sabatino (0-0, 9.00 ERA, 7 IP, 6 SO/8 BB)
At the plate: Jr. 2B Frank DeSico (.436, 9 R, 2 2B), Jr. C Joe Hudson (.424, 3 2B, 2 HR, 9 RBIs), So. 1B Trey Mancini (.424, 10 R, 3 2B, 12 RBIs), So. OF Eric Jagielo (.333, 2 2B, 1 HR, 7 RBIs)
Did you know: Notre Dame made 10 NCAA Tournament appearances in Mainieri’s 12 years leading the program, but they have not been back since he departed. Aoki guided Boston College to its first NCAA berth since 1967 in 2009, and the Eagles nearly stunned Texas before falling in a 25-inning marathon.
Aoki’s team comes to Baton Rouge hungry to score runs after being whitewashed in three straight games at Texas State last weekend.
Notre Dame lost 6-0, 6-0 and 5-0 to the Bobcats, who left an impression on the Irish’s second-year coach.
“We ran into what I consider the best college pitching staff I’ve ever seen,” Aoki said. “I think we’re going to be fine offensively, but we were a little overmatched. We got back home and got back to doing some fundamental things to see if we can be better.”
Before the lost trip to Texas State, Notre Dame was off to a 5-1 start – the loss coming to a Purdue team that has since emerged in the national rankings.
Before the loss to the Boilermakers, the Irish beat Iowa and Illinois and then swept Hofstra after falling to Purdue.
Notre Dame is hitting .285 as a team, but the 27-inning scoring drought derailed whatever offensive momentum had been built up from the first six games. That’s something Aoki hopes his club can rekindle against Michigan and LSU.
“We’ve made some progress, but we’re looking at this as an opportunity to come down there and get some positive results,” he said. “We’re to a point where we want to get some national recognition for our program and get it back to where it was when Paul was here.”
Of course tangling with the Wolverines doesn’t hurt, either.
While the three games at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge were good barometers and gave Notre Dame a taste of their Midwestern competition, nothing compares to how facing the maize-and-blue affects the Irish.
“The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry permeates through all the sports here,” Aoki said. “It means a lot to our players every time we play them. You add that to the chance to play a program with the tradition of LSU and this weekend is a great chance for us to get the kind of experience we need for the rest of the season.”