Baseball wraps up fall camp

After going 0-4 in the College World Series during its last two trips to Omaha, Neb., the LSU Tiger baseball team could have been forgiven for being a little gun-shy as it entered fall camp in preparation for the 2005 season.

But, as head coach Smoke Laval is fond of saying: "Yeah… and no."

The Tigers responded to their second straight winless trip to the CWS by signing the top-rated recruiting class in the nation, and coupled with a returning class that lost only three starters from a team that tied the single-season record for victories, LSU has done more than just reload – it has rearmed.

With outfielders J.C. Holt and Jon Zeringue now plying their trade in the professional minor leagues, two positions became immediately available – and were promptly filled by redshirt juniors Bruce Sprowl and Quinn Stewart, veterans of the 2003 World Series campaign.

Shortstop Ivan Naccarata is also collecting a paycheck for playing baseball these days, leaving an infield position up for grabs – and if fall camp was any indication, any one of a number of players could find themselves manning the vacant spot when the season opens on February 11 against Nicholls State.

"The hitters have looked tremendous," said assistant coach Jody Autrey. "The same guys are back, and everyone's done a tremendous job this fall. Everybody's hit the ball really hard – it kind of makes it hard for you to assess your pitching, but the guys are really swinging the bats well."

Chief among standouts on the diamond this fall was Sprowl, a center fielder from Knoxville, Tenn., who joined Stewart in redshirting in 2004 rather than spend a season of eligibility sitting on the bench behind Holt and Zeringue.

Sprowl joined fellow outfielder Ryan Patterson on the All-Summer League team this summer after hitting .340 with 13 doubles, six home runs, 21 RBI, and 21 stolen bases, and the momentum continued upon his return to the friendly confines of Alex Box Stadium.

"Bruce Sprowl has looked very good, he's hitting the ball better than he ever has," said Autrey. "His numbers for the fall were pretty average for him, but he made some good hard outs. He's played a very good center field; he can go get some balls, and he makes some tremendous reads off the bat."

Another member of the squad who enjoyed a return to the field over the summer was third baseman Brian Harris. Harris, no relation to incumbent third baseman Clay Harris, spent the 2004 season as little more than a cheerleader in the dugout after a preseason knee injury ruled him out for the season.

Now healthy, Harris is swinging the bat again, and Autrey said the summer experience could pay big dividends in 2005.

"Brian Harris, it was very good for him to get away and play in the Cape (Cod League)," said Autrey. "He missed last spring, but now he's got a little confidence coming in, he's just now really starting to feel it and swing well, it just took some time."

One player however who was not fortunate enough to escape the dreaded injury bug was fellow infielder Blake Gill. Gill, a senior from Bradenton, Fla., suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and underwent surgery on October 15, although the Tigers are hopeful the hard-hitting second baseman will not much any substantial playing time.

"He's going to be hitting in January, and as far as the throwing, he can accelerate it not being a pitcher. He's going to miss early, but I expect him to contribute a ton," said Autrey. "Blake Gill's been here, he's a fifth-year guy, a lot's expected out of him. But even if [his shoulder] is hurting a little bit, it's not going to slow him down."

During the games Gill misses, his position will likely be filled by either junior Derek Hebert, or Michael Hollander, one of the members of the stellar recruiting class. Hollander comes to LSU by way of Metairie, La., where he was an All-State standout for Jesuit High School.

"Michael Hollander's had a very good fall, he's not striking out a whole lot, he's showing he's got a little bit of power," Autrey said. "It's tough on freshmen with the expectations, but he's a tough kid and we think he can handle it.

"We'll throw him to the fire a little bit and he'll struggle early, but we'll stick with him and he'll be fine. He, along with Derek Hebert, will help tremendously because of Blake Gill."

Having Hebert, Sprowl, and Stewart on hand to plug in the vacancies left by the draft and by injury is a luxury few teams ever get to experience, and is something that has the Tiger coaching staff confident that their strong fall showing will lead to a strong spring in the SEC – which in turn should lead to a third consecutive trip back to the hallowed grounds of Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.

"It's very rare," said Autrey. "Not a lot of people have that advantage, but for Sprowl to ask about the redshirt last year, understanding the situation, I think it helped him but it really helped the program as well. It is a big advantage, not a lot of people have that advantage, having two guys that have played in Omaha to come back even though they redshirted, two guys that can come back and say, "Look, I've played there, we will make it there again," instead of having guys come in that say, "Where's this Omaha place?" They've been there and they're doing an exceptional job.

"You can't take a weekend off, you can't take a day off – you're not allowed. It's like that in Omaha, you have one bad day and you're going home. You have to learn how to handle the pressure and you see that with Omaha all the time; teams that have been there before are just happy to be there, that's a good season for them.

"We go there to win it."

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