TIGER BASEBALL:<br>The Newcomers

It seems having the number one recruiting class in the nation is becoming fashionable in Baton Rouge these days.

First the football team ruled the roost with the signatures of Early Doucet and Xavier Carter, then the women's basketball team jumped into the fray with Sylvia Fowles and Quianna Chaney.

Now the baseball team has joined the ranks of the nation's recruiting elite with a class that was ranked number one in the nation by Collegiate Baseball magazine, a 22-year-old publication based out of Arizona.

The distinction was the fourth such for LSU recruiting coordinator Turtle Thomas, as his 1988, 1991, and 1993 classes at the University of Miami were also considered the best in Division I-A.

"I don't think it has anything to do with me," said Thomas in a university release. "It has everything to do with the school you are recruiting for and offer the kids. LSU has led the nation nine years in a row in attendance. We have hosted regionals 15 straight years and have won five national titles since 1991.

"Like everyone else, we always try to get the best players we can and go to many tournaments and showcases in the summer. We have been very fortunate. It also should be pointed out that our entire coaching staff does a good job of working together on recruiting. It is a great team effort."

The class is made up of seven freshmen, two junior college transfers, and two four-year transfers, and is broken down as six pitchers, two infielders, one outfielder, and two utility players. Four of the signees – third baseman J.P. Padron, right-handed pitcher Chase Dardar, left-handed pitcher Daniel Forrer, and utility player Kade Keowen – were all selected in the first 20 rounds of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft but chose a collegiate career over a paycheck, and a fifth – right-handed pitcher Eric English – was named Florida's 6A Player of the Year in 2004.

"I just wasn't ready for it," said Padron of his decision to play for the Tigers instead of the Pirates, who drafted him in the 12th round in June. "It wasn't right, something told me this was where I needed to be, I don't know why.

"[LSU is] just a good fit for me, the tradition here is unreal, the fans are great, it's just a great place to play baseball."

While Padron and the remainder of the signed position players are likely to spend the majority of the season sitting on the bench as backups to LSU's upperclassmen, the pitchers are being given an opportunity to fight for quality playing time from day one, as head coach Smoke Laval identified a lack of quality starting arms as a key reason the Tigers came home from the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., empty-handed for the second year in a row last season.

"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," Laval said. "Doesn't that send a message that we don't have a number one to match up with a number one?"

But the problem that plagued the team in 2004 and ultimately led to its downfall in the CWS may well be a strength in 2005, as LSU finds itself with a sudden abundance of quality arms.

"We're much deeper, so that's good, it's not who can pitch it's which one's going to be better," said Laval. "You have about seven or eight that's all the same, where last year you had two or three. That part's good, but were 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."

One arm to keep an eye on is that belonging to freshman hurler English, a former standout at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla., who is already making himself at home on the bayou after wreaking havoc in the Floridian swamps.

The right-hander, who throws an 88 mile-per-hour fastball along with a curveball, changeup, and slider, was near untouchable during his senior season with the Lightning, giving up just two earned runs in 93 innings work, and is already saying all the right things to win over Tiger fans frustrated with two consecutive winless trips to Omaha.

"Basically when I came here on my official visit it was during the Super Regionals, and there were 8,000 people here screaming, and the feeling I got inside was that I want to pitch on that mound when there's 8,000 people looking at me, and there's no other school in the country like that," English said. "There's a chance here I can win a national championship, where opposed to another school you can't. I love competition and I thrive under pressure, so this is what I like better.

"Smoke runs a tight practice, he's a very good coach and he knows a lot about baseball. The kids are really good to be around, and I've never seen such a good baseball team before. Playing against these guys is a dream."

For some athletes, the pressure of playing in front of 8,000 screaming fans might be too much to handle.

For the members of LSU's top-ranked recruiting class, though, that is exactly why they decided Alex Box Stadium would make a perfect place to play home games.

"That's just part of playing here, the fans, but the other day we found out that LSU produces the most major league baseball players out of any university, so I mean it's a good place to be if you're trying to get to the next level, and that's what I want to do," said Padron. "We're real strong as a recruiting class, we've got a lot of good talent, young talent. Hopefully we will get out there and see what we've got."

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