FALL PREVIEW:<br><br>Tiger Baseball

Editor's Note: This is the first story of a three-part series this week detailing LSU Baseball Fall Camp. - MD

For most baseball programs, two straight trips to the College World Series would be an achievement worth bragging about, regardless of the result.

For most baseball programs, losing only one weekend series over the course of an entire season would be something to hang a hat on.

Then again, most baseball programs do not have an Intimidator sign proudly displayed in right field celebrating the five national championships won over a recent nine-year span.

Indeed, nothing short of a sixth national title is considered a satisfactory end to a season by spoiled fans in Baton Rouge, and as a result consecutive two-and-a-barbeque trips to the CWS in Omaha, Neb., have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Tiger supporters.

Regular season dominance counts for naught in a town accustomed to winning rings, and a recent lack of relative postseason success has many wondering what has gone wrong at Alex Box Stadium.

The answer to that question is simple – after years of the Tigers beating up on inferior competition, the NCAA has caught up to LSU, and the parity that makes collegiate football so addictive has found its way into the college baseball ranks.

The end of the world? No.

The end of an era where wins in Omaha were a given, even before a season started? Yes.

That cold reality has not stopped the Tigers making a World Series ring their ultimate aim though, and the 2005 season has the potential to be LSU's best since Smoke Laval took over as head coach in 2002 and led the Tigers to a Super Regional, where they were ultimately beaten by eventual national champions Rice.

Each subsequent team since then has had weaknesses that have denied LSU even a single victory in the CWS, but with the number one recruiting class in the nation, and a roster that features stellar depth at almost every position, the Tigers may well find the third time to indeed be a charm.

"To me Omaha (last year) was a little disappointing, but to get there back-to-back years – and if we didn't play Rice in the Super Regional we would've been there three years in a row, and Rice wasn't real bad – you've got to have some good fortune when you're out there, and you've got to have some talent," Laval said. "It's not a surprise – we were one of three teams in the whole country that lost only one weekend series, only one, and everybody goes, "Yeah!" but if you look at it we only won two Friday night games. Doesn't that send a message that we don't have a number one to match up with a number one? In Omaha, they're all number one's, and probably without injury we would've had a number one; (Lane) Mestepey would've been it or (Justin) Meier would've been it, or Brandon Nall would've been it."

The problem in 2004, according to Laval, was a lack of options on the mound for the crucial Friday night games. The problem in 2005, he says, may be too many options.

"We still have question marks with the pitching staff," Laval said. "We're much deeper, so that's good – it's not who can pitch, it's which one's going to be better? You have about seven or eight that's all the same, where last year you had two or three. That part's good, but we're still looking for a legit Friday night starter. This year we have a chance where two or three could do that, last year there was none that could take over that spot."

Among Laval's options on the mound are a host of talented newcomers that make up the bulk of the top-rated recruiting class, including right-handers Chris Cahill and Edgar Ramirez, both top prospects in the Coastal Plains League, Left-hander Ryan Byrd, a Denham Springs native who was named to the Louisville Slugger All-American team, right-hander Eric English, Florida's 6A Player of the Year in 2004, and Chase Dardar and Daniel Forrer, two right-handers who turned down Major League contracts to enroll at LSU.

However, Laval cautions, all the accolades in the world amount to nothing if you cannot produce in a game – and that is where the experience of the returning players becomes a crucial factor.

"They've all looked good, but we're going to play today at 3:07 p.m., and the parking lot's not full," Laval said before the first fall scrimmage. "How do they react? How do they react with 7,000 fans here when they're supposed to win?"

Fortunately, the rookies will not be alone on the field, and the remainder of the roster is blessed with depth and experience that most teams in Division I-A can only dream of.

The trick is keeping them healthy.

"The veteran players came back, most of them have improved and stepped it up a notch, so that part we're good," Laval said. "The freshmen that came in are about where they should be – it's time for them now to drop the freshman mode and become players here.

"Other than that we're staying injury free; Blake Gill had a slight tear in his shoulder so that's going to hurt early on in the season, I don't know how long that will hurt – he just got out of surgery. We need him to get healthy and stay healthy, he's our go-to guy, he's our senior leadership guy. Other than that I'm pleased, I like the way our veterans didn't take it for granted, the guys that were healthy did well. We still had two or three injuries, Ryan Patterson, Brian Harris, Quinn Stewart had a hamate bone problem, or they would've been right there too and that would've made it an outstanding fall."

The experience of a roster that has two trips to the CWS under its belt, coupled with the newfound depth on the mound and in the bullpen, means 2005 could be ‘the year' for the sixth time for the Tigers.

The Intimidator might just need a facelift next June – and that is definitely an achievement worth bragging about.

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