REPORT CARD: LSU Baseball

One common rule in dealing with life situations, especially in social settings, is to avoid any conversation when it deals with sex, religion or politics.

Lately, when revolving in LSU circles, conversations concerning the Tiger baseball team are to be avoided, that is if you do not want to set off World War III. Any situation albeit a poker game, fishing trip or church picnic has the possibility of turning almost violent if the topic of LSU baseball surfaces, mainly head coach Smoke Laval.

 

One would think after almost four seasons at LSU, in which the Tigers have won an SEC title, made two trips to the College World Series and most recently rallied from last place in the SEC West to win the division, LSU's skipper could be cut a little slack.

 

Not the case however.

 

Almost on a daily basis, the Tiger Rag mailbox is filled to the hilt with letter after letter condemning Laval and his baseball team. While we feel that is a bit harsh, other fans do not as a large portion of the fan base thinks the Tiger baseball program is in some sort of decline with sagging attendance and an absence of a national championship over the last half-decade.

 

The empire built by the legendary Skip Bertman is being systematically dismantled by the Laval regime and just making it to the Omaha isn't good enough anymore. As a matter of fact, Laval can't seem to do anything right as he (and his team) are criticized on a daily basis by a fan base tabbed the "Greatest Fans in College Baseball" as the right field wall reads at Alex Box Stadium.

 

It seems a once rabid fan base has turned sour a bit having become spoiled by the successes of the late 1980s and 90s. What few fail to realize is that half of the field at the College World Series a year wasn't made up by SEC teams by accident. The SEC is far and away the nation's top baseball conference. What LSU did when Bertman was building the dynasty has sparked other schools to do the same and LSU's neighbors are now buying into the system and have caught up with the Tigers.

 

Despite the ultra-competitive SEC, LSU has managed to stay at or near the top of the pack and remain one of the nation's elite baseball powerhouses. Now, now, you may be one of those fans deluded with the idea that the game has passed the Tigers by, that LSU has fallen from grace. But if you want to know just how high the Tigers are held in terms of the national baseball scene, just ask anyone not affiliated with the LSU fan base and they will tell you for sure.

 

But the proof is in the pudding. The Tigers are in contention for the league title year in and year out, are getting set to host the 16th straight regional held at Alex Box Stadium and possibly a super regional depending on the outcome of the SEC Tournament this weekend. LSU has made a pair of trips to the College World Series under Laval and the law of averages state eventually the Tigers will again have their day in the sun.

But patience will tell the tale in the long run.

 

Over the next few pages, we will break down this year's Tiger squad, first by aspects of the team then by personnel. Hopefully if you are one of the nay-sayers out there, this will help shed some light on what is the hottest topic on campus these days.

 

 

Offense

 

One thing LSU has always been well known for is the ability to put the ball in play or, in a sense, out of play.

 

The Tigers made the long ball popular in the late 1990s drilling an NCAA record 188 home runs in 1997. However, bat modifications assured that record would be forever safe. LSU may not being playing the Gorilla Ball of the late 1990s, but the Tigers can still hit the ball out of the park on a fairly consistent basis.

 

Entering the 2005 season, Laval stated he had the most talented team he has fielded in his tenure as the head coach at LSU. With a squad more resembling Les Miles football Tigers rather than a baseball team, this team looked like a collection of ball players with lofty offensive capabilities.

Ooops. Not quite.

 

Throughout the early portion of the schedule, LSU failed to develop the necessary big sticks in the lineup (Bryan Harris, Michael Hollander, Quinn Stewart) as well as deliver the timely hit. LSU endured major lineup issues featuring a different rotation almost every game.

 

Ryan Patterson remained fairly consistent most of the season leading the team in batting average for the duration of the regular season. However, few other players could find their power stroke on a day-to-day basis and the Tigers struggled to piece together base hits.

 

The insertion of Chris Jackson into the lineup midway through the season may have been the most beneficial move made by Laval this season. Jackson's spark helped energize the Tigers after losing three straight SEC series. LSU went on to win the final six SEC weekend sets and go from last to first place in a matter of four weekends.

 

Once the weather heated up the bats livened up as well. The top half of the LSU lineup found its groove and the likes of Jackson, Blake Gill, Patterson, Clay Harris and Nick Stavinoha all began producing LSU-like numbers on a daily basis. Jordan Mayer, Derek Hebert and Bruce Sprowl even had a moment or two down the stretch. However, the inability of Matt Liuzza, Will Harris, Hollander and Stewart to find any sort of consistent kept the Tigers from reaching their full potential.

 

Toss in the fact LSU was absolutely dreadful when trying to bunt the baseball and the Tigers hit for the lowest batting average since hitting coach Turtle Thomas arrived in 2000 and LSU can be sized up as underachievers on the offensive end of the spectrum.

 

Grade: C+

 

 

Pitching

 

Baseball is a funny game, or so Laval says.

 

Remember way back in February and March when the Tigers couldn't buy a base hit on Friday nights but the gusty Lane Mestepey produced game after game keeping LSU in the game every time he toed the rubber.

 

Then, by the time the Tigers found their stroke, Mestepey began to struggle winning just one decision (versus Kentucky) in the last two months. Mestepey, a fan favorite who is three wins away from the LSU career record, has been called out by an impatient fan base but Laval has stuck with his Friday night bulldog.

 

However, the one thing diverting attention away from Mestepey's travails has been the weekend domination by Clay Dirks (10-2) and Greg Smith (10-2). Combining to make up the SEC's best weekend one-two punch, Dirks on Saturday and Smith on Sunday have been virtually unstoppable. Dirks got roughed up against Tennessee two weeks ago, but has been solid most of the way.

Smith battled in a 3-2 win over Mississippi State in the regular season finale, but three straight complete game victories, including two shutouts has assured the fact Smith will be an all-American.

 

Two of the top relievers in the SEC have been Jordan Faircloth and Jason Determann. Faircloth's side-winding delivery has kept opponents off balance most of the way, but Determann has been the real story. Carrying a 4-0 record and seven saves into the postseason, Determann has been all but un-hittable down the stretch.

 

While Determann and Faircloth are quite effective out of the pen as closers, the Tigers set-up men have been a cause for concern. Eric English, Edgar Ramirez and Brandon Nall have been far from impressive out of the bullpen for pitching coach Brady Wiederhold. Nall won a couple of starts versus Northwestern State and Nicholls, but struggled mightily against Tulane on national television hitting three batters in the same inning.

 

One thing that could come back to haunt the Tigers this season is the failure to develop a fourth starting pitcher. Really, LSU has two solid starters in Dirks and Smith with Mestepey a distant third. Determann can start games, but LSU is better served with his services in the bullpen. Nall lacks experience after a rash of arm problems and the inability to develop Chase Dardar has left Laval and Wiederhold in some sort of a bind.

 

Justin Meier, who registered a win over Rice in April, has been lost in near obscurity seeing the least amount of action in his career. However, he does have SEC Tournament and College World Series experience and that could pay off down the stretch.

 

But as far as Dirks and Smith go, LSU can win two of three from just about anyone in the country.

 

Grade: B

 

 

Coaching:

 

Glad we are not letting the fans pick this one.

 

In terms of where these Tigers have been and where they are now, Laval and his staff has done a great job of absorbing some sub-standard play early on to rally back and win the last six SEC series and capture the SEC Western Division title.

 

The fourth-year coach has drawn lots of criticism for his lack of fire in the dugout and both Thomas and Wiederhold can be criticized to some degree for the lack of developing certain players. However, for the most part, the staff has done a good job of getting this team in the right frame of mind heading into the postseason.

 

In years past, the Tigers have placed little emphasis on the SEC Tournament using it as a preparatory step for the NCAA Regionals. Thomas said the Tigers are approaching this year's tournament a bit different with every intention of winning it in hopes of securing a super regional.

 

Grade: B

 

 

Overall:

 

Is this team as good as advertised in the preseason?

 

Probably not.

 

Are they as talented as everyone thought?

 

Probably.

 

However, the biggest problem this team has faced is the inability to approach games with the killer instinct needed to be a dominant team on the national college baseball scene. The pitching is there and the offense is there, but LSU has seldom got everything clicking on all cylinders on the same day.

 

The Tigers have enjoyed flashes of brilliance and have shown they can get the job done, but that has not happened on a consistent enough basis.

 

Can this change?

 

Sure, but the question is can they get it together in time to make the necessary run through the postseason. While winning two on the road against the league's best home team this season in Mississippi State was impressive, the wins weren't exactly pretty. LSU will need a better effort than it gave in Starkville to again reach the College World Series.

 

Grade: B-

 

 

Most Valuable Player:

 

Ryan Patterson – Undoubtedly the spark of the Tigers' offense, Patterson leads the team in home runs with 19, is hitting .379 with 49 RBIs. Plus, he has improved dramatically on his defensive efforts in left field. Is a candidate for SEC and national player of the year honors.

 

 

Most Valuable Pitcher:

 

Jason Determann – While this award should probably be split with Greg Smith, Jason Determann has been Mr. Automatic for LSU this season. Compiling a 4-0 record with seven saves, Determann has been a rock out of the bullpen for the Tigers and proved his worth striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth at Mississippi State to capture the division title.

 

 

Most Improved Player:

 

Nick Stavinoha – One of the biggest disappointments a year ago, Stavinoha was advertised as a home run hitter that can affect the outcome of a game. In the DH slot last season, Stavinoha had twice as many pop-ups as home runs and struck fear in the hearts of few. However, as a senior, Stavinoha has belted 17 homes, including crucial three-run shots versus Arkansas and Kentucky and has delivered a number of clutch base hits during LSU's stretch run.

 

 

Biggest Surprise:

 

Chris Jackson – Everybody knew he had a strong leg as the Tigers place kicker on the football field, but Jackson's abilities at third base and most notably at the plate served as big factor in the Tigers' midseason turnaround.

 

 

Biggest Bust:

 

Bryan Harris – Tabbed a year ago as the next big slugger at LSU, Harris suffered a knee injury and has never really returned to top form. Harris was slated to start at third this season but faded from sight early on and never resurfaced, especially when Jackson was inserted into the rotation at third base.


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