Diamond Tigers begin fall ball Monday

The LSU baseball squad opens a two-week fall practice session Monday in Alex Box Stadium, as the Tigers begin preparing for the 2006 season under fifth-year head coach Smoke Laval.

Laval has directed LSU to two College World Series appearances, one SEC championship and two SEC Western Division titles in the past four seasons. Laval, the 2003 SEC Coach of the Year, has also guided LSU to the best SEC regular-season record in the past four seasons, posting a 75-43-1 (.634) mark. South Carolina has the second-best league record (73-46, .613), and Florida is third (70-49-1, .588).

LSU, which finished the 2005 season ranked No. 18 in the nation, welcomes 16 returning lettermen – including seven pitchers and six starters in the batting order -- and a 15-man signing class.

"We're looking forward to the next couple of weeks," Laval said, "because it gives us the opportunity to see the guys play. The more we can watch them play, and the more innings they get in, the better off we'll be."

The Tigers' opening workout is scheduled to begin at approximately 1:30 p.m. Monday. All practice sessions and intra-squad games are open to the public.

LSU begins the 2006 season on Friday, Feb. 10, when the Tigers play host to North Florida at 6:30 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium.

The Tigers must replace three hitters selected in the first nine rounds of the 2005 draft – all-America outfielder Ryan Patterson (4th round), all-SEC outfielder Nick Stavinoha (7th round) and all-SEC infielder Clay Harris (9th round). The trio combined last season to produce 278 hits, 47 homers and 181 RBI.

Laval, however, feels the combination of the Tigers' returning players and a talented class of freshmen can produce a potent lineup this season.

"If our returning veterans can give us solid years, I feel we can be a team to be reckoned with," Laval said. "We have some young players with a lot of talent who can blend with the older guys to give us a solid lineup.

"Now, it won't be the type of lineup we've had in recent years with big power numbers and high slugging percentages. This club will be young and fun to watch. We'll do more running, steal more bases, and we'll have more speed defensively."

The LSU lineup will be bolstered by the return of senior catcher Matt Liuzza, the 30th-round draft selection of the Chicago Cubs last summer. Liuzza, a superb defender behind the plate, batted .251 (43-for-171) in 2005 with 10 doubles, three homers, 24 RBI and 30 runs. Liuzza is a career .301 hitter with 16 homers and 95 RBI in three seasons (159 starts).

The LSU infield will count upon the leadership of senior first baseman Will Harris, who has made 105 starts during his career. Harris endured a difficult 2005 season, batting just .213; however, he hit .329 in 2004 with nine doubles, seven homers and 39 RBI.

Two more seniors with significant experience – center fielder Bruce Sprowl (96 career starts) and left fielder Quinn Stewart (70 career starts) – return to the LSU outfield. Sprowl hit. 264 (38-for-144) last season with double, two triples, two homers, 13 RBI, 28 runs and five steals. Stewart hit .250 (29-for-116) in 2005 with seven doubles, two triples, three homers, 13 RBI and 19 runs.

The Tigers' projected 2006 batting order also features two players that earned Freshman all-SEC honors last season – third baseman Chris Jackson and designated hitter Jordan Mayer.

Jackson, also a kicking specialist for the LSU football team, became a full-time starter in the Tigers' infield last April. He hit .305 (39-for-128) in 36 games with three doubles, one triple, one homer, 17 RBI and 29 runs.

Mayer became a regular in the LSU batting order in late April, and he batted .313 (36-for-115) in 42 games with 13 doubles, one triple, four homers, 26 RBI and 16 runs.

Sophomore shortstop Michael Hollander (.246, 1 HR, 14 RBI) is another player who saw significant playing time as a freshman, appearing in 44 games (38 starts).

Laval said he likes the structure of the LSU pitching staff, which was No. 2 in the SEC last season with a 3.67 ERA in conference games. The Tigers must compensate, however, for the loss of three of the top four hurlers from last season – all-America left-hander Greg Smith, a sixth-round draft choice of the Arizona Diamondbacks; left-hander Jason Determann, who was 19-5 with nine saves in his career; and left-hander Lane Mestepey, LSU's all-time leader in starts (68) and innings pitched (480).

"We're getting some pitchers back who were injured last season, plus we have guys that have won a lot of games for us," Laval said. "We've added a few new arms, and we feel like we can put together a very effective staff."

The staff will receive a boost with the return of sophomore right-hander Michael Bonura (4-0, 4.46 ERA, 34.1 IP in 2004) who sat out the 2005 season after undergoing elbow surgery. Also returning is junior left-hander Daniel Forrer, a 17th-round draft choice in 2004 who missed last season due to shoulder surgery.

Seven pitchers who took the mound in 2005 return to the staff this season, including junior left-hander Clay Dirks, an all-conference selection last year. Dirks posted a 10-4 mark with a 3.24 ERA, and he fired three complete games, including a shutout at Arkansas. Dirks worked 94.1 innings, recording 27 walks, 67 strikeouts and a .233 opponent batting average.

Senior right-hander Justin Meier is a capable veteran with 237.1 innings pitched in 48 career appearances (34 starts). Meier appeared in 14 games last season, posting a 2-3 mark and a 4.79 ERA with 15 walks and 30 strikeouts in 41.1 innings.

Senior right-hander Edgar Ramirez (0-1, 4.50 ERA, 36 IP, 13 BB, 33 SO in 2005) came on strong at the end of last season, firing 5.2 scoreless relief innings in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional. Sophomore right-hander Eric English showed promise as a freshman, recording a 1-0 mark and a 3.82 ERA in 30.2 innings with 16 walks and 26 Ks.

Senior right-handers Chris Cahill and Chase Dardar pitched on a limited basis last season and each will be counted upon to record more innings in 2006.

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