As with any sport, star power is a welcome on the baseball diamond any time a team can get it.
LSU boasts a handful of players whose talent is on a different plane than most, and it’s no secret those are the guys who the No. 1-ranked Tigers need to lead the way as the 2012 NCAA Tournament gets underway.
That means clutch hitting from Raph Rhymes, an occasional power surge from steady emotional spark plug Mason Kats and gritty at-bats from Austin Nola and Ty Ross. It also means a dominant start from Kevin Gausman, tantalizing relief work from Chris Cotton and a return to form by closer Nick Goody when his chance rolls around.
For this season to stay alive and play out the way LSU fans have gotten so accustomed to, though, somebody else will have to step into the spotlight at some point. It may be one hit, one great play, one clutch performance in an inning on the mound and it could be a combination of several players.
Who will it be? Tyler Hanover, Tyler Moore, JaCoby Jones, Arby Fields and Jordy Snikeris are likely to get the first crack at the job – the primary role player for the Tigers (43-16), who begin their quest for a return to the College World Series at 7 p.m. Friday against UL-Monroe (31-28) in the second game of the Baton Rouge Regional at Alex Box Stadium.
Oregon State (38-18) and Belmont (39-22) get the tournament started at 2 p.m.
“We’ve been a team where everybody has taken their turn at being a hero this year and I wouldn’t expect anything different in the postseason,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
“I want our players to approach every game like they have go out there and let it rip, don’t be afraid, play confidently and believe in our team. Somebody will emerge and be the hero for us each day.”
In a rich history ripe with postseason success, there is no shortage of unheralded LSU players stepping into the fire and delivering the unexpected.
Most recently it was a freshman outfielder named Leon Landry making one dazzling catch after another in 2008, forgotten senior infielder Derek Helenihi cranking up his game defensively and contributing some key home runs in 2009 and outfielder Trey Watkins delivering a game-winning hit after being buried on the bench for the second half of the season.
The common thread was a bigger stage that not only didn’t faze unheralded players, but seemed to fuel them.
“Every championship team has somebody different who isn’t really a star step up in the postseason and they play well,” said Moore, the freshman first baseman/catcher.
“This is why you play baseball as long as you do. It’s exciting. This is such a different level especially here because of the atmosphere we have here.”
There promises to be no shortage of that atmosphere Friday as LSU hosts its first NCAA Tournament game since 2009.
A standing-room-only crowd is expected when the Tigers tangle with the Warhawks, who are making their first NCAA appearance since 2000.
For added drama, ULM will send out junior pitcher Randy Zeigler, who began his career at LSU.
Zeigler suffered a torn elbow ligament during his freshman season in 2009 and left after that season to transfer to Bossier Parish Community College.
How that exit came about has been a topic of conversation this week.
Mainieri insisted that there is no animosity toward the former player. But Zeigler apparently told a Monroe reporter earlier this season that his exit meeting with Mainieri was 45 minutes of “getting told how bad I was.”
Asked about the meeting on Thursday, Mainieri said he didn’t recall it playing out that way and reiterated that he was happy for Zeigler.
“I didn’t tell him he had to leave,” Mainieri said. “It was his choice. He went to ULM, and I think he found the right place.”
All that spice aside, there is plenty of meaning attached to the games this week.
Three straight wins for any team in the regional leads to a Super Regional appearance.
For the Tigers, that Super Regional would be right back in the Box next weekend. And winning two of three in that round punches a ticket to the College World Series.
“This is why I came to college: To play in NCAA tournament and have a chance to go to Omaha,” Jones said.
But the Tigers can’t allow the largeness of the rewards within grasp dominate their thinking – especially considering that only four current players were around the last time LSU played a postseason game at home: Nola, Hanover, Grant Dozar and Beau Didier.
Nola and Hanover both bashed College World Series home runs that season as freshmen.
“It’s a bigger stage, but if you treat it as something more special, then it might engulf you and the nerves might take over,” Moore said. “We have to try to treat it the same and make the next game the biggest one.”
How much more easily is that said than done, though?
Nola, who has started 213 career games at shortstop (Hanover is the only current player with more starts – 230) readily admits he’ll have butterflies as the Tigers take the diamond Friday night.
Katz was on LSU’s 2010 NCAA Tournament team and a key member of last season’s club that missed the postseason. When the regional pairings were announced Monday, Katz said “I wish we could play now.”
With that as a backdrop for most of the players this week, Mainieri decided to put his team’s fate in the palm of freshman right-hander Aaron Nola.
While that might seem like a lot to ask of a pitcher making his first foray into an NCAA Tournament, the younger Nola is anything but typical.
Like his older brother, Aaron Nola was a regular at LSU tournament games from the time he was young and was front-and-center in 2009 when the Tigers claimed the national championship.
“There are a lot of
things that I see in players that make me want to believe in them and believe
that they can rise to the occasion when the pressure is the greatest,” Mainieri
“Obviously, they have to have the skills and the talent to do it, but there’s also something special, an extra ingredient about certain players that I see. Those are the ones I like to hitch my wagon to. It’s all a matter of picking the kids that can go out there and do it for our team.
“That’s why we’re giving the ball to Aaron Nola (Friday) night. I believe in that kid so much. He’s a player that has that great arm, he’s a great athlete and he has the ability to throw strikes. There’s something different about him that makes him a winner. I know that he will emerge in the biggest games. I’ve never looked at Aaron as if he was a freshman. He’s been around this field for so many years watching his brother, he’s been in the stands and he’s been in Omaha. It’s as though he’s not truly a freshman. He knows what it takes here, because he’s seen it.”
And Aaron Nola’s laid-back personality could come in handy.
In a season when he has gone 6-4 with a 3.93 ERA, Aaron Nola has shown calmness beyond his years – never getting frazzled despite giving up a handful of big innings because of his knack for living almost exclusively around the strike zone.
“He’s not going to be nervous at all,” Austin Nola said. “His whole life he’s pitched in big games and I don’t expect this to be any different for him.
“He wanted to get the ball. I knew he was a little pumped. This is just another game and another team where he’s going to have to go out and compete his best and we’re confident he’ll do that for us.”
ON DECK: LSU Regional