Tigers close out fall camp

The LSU baseball team completed its two week fall camp Friday to cap off the fall practice period.

With it, head coach Smoke Laval had the opportunity to observe how this year's team will fare. With the highlighted losses of many players to the MLB draft, Laval was even more interested to see how the team makeup would pan out.

"Nobody had a great fall yet no one had a bad one," said Laval. "I think there is no question that the all the freshman got better. They proved to themselves and their teammates that they can definitely play Division I baseball."

This newly arrived skill begins at the catcher position. Robert Lara and J.T. Wise both played brilliantly in the intrasquad games and could prove to be valuable, even if it is off of the bench. Last year, Matt Liuzza had an off year that many attributed to fatigue. The coaching staff tried to spell him with Dustin Weaver, but that never worked out. This year, with such capable backups, Liuzza could get the rest that will enable him to have a strong year from beginning to end.

"Liuzza could have gone pro last year," said Laval. "He has played for three years and decided to stay in school this summer and pick up 9-12 hours."

The Tigers also have a hole in the infield with the departure of Blake Gill and Clay Harris. Freshmen Buzzy Haydel and Jason Ogata both saw action up the middle this fall and could look to replace Clay Harris at second base.

But even with the surprising maturity of the freshmen, you can not substitute actual experience and Laval was quick to realize the veteran influence.

"I have seen nice leadership from the veterans," said Laval. "The veterans have taken over better and more than any other time since I have been here. And that is nice to see."

Last season, Laval was criticized for not being a more active coach. He would often spend whole games in the same spot of the dugout, and never be seen my some fans.

"Last year the pieces were in place," said Laval. "We had a lot of players back and it was no secret that we were a powerful slugging team. So, all we had to do is go out and battle."

But this year, things could be different. Laval is looking forward to what he calls a more "hands on approach" with the motley team.

He will have the opportunity to mold and develop the team using a different template. And that is why fall practice is so important. It gives the coaching staff the chance to evaluate the team and sense what game plan will best insure success.

"When you have a young club, like we do now, you like to do it all," said Laval. "You show them all of it in the fall. Then, you see how well they know the game and teach them more and see how well they catch on."

"Then you evaluate. Well, we are not going to hit as many homers so you have to do the little things--have a better two strike approach, better running game, better at stealing bases."

Another area that Laval is apprehensively optimistic about is the pitchers. Last year, there were injuries to many arms that hurt his pitching staff depth, especially Lane Mestepey.

"Like any sport, you have to stay healthy," said Laval. "Mestepey had the arm injury and he was one of our quarterbacks and front-liners. You can not control that and we had to find a way to overcome that and still win games."

Besides Mestepey, there were others whose absence hurt the team.

"Our arms are healthy and that is real big for us." said Laval.

Injuries sidelined Michael Bonura, Daniel Forrer, and Nolan Cain for most or all of last season. They are healthy and looked to have regained their form. Their numbers from fall camp are good and they will make an immediate impact this year.

One blessing that came from Katrina is the new schedule. The team was slated to start late September. The start was pushed back and Laval opted to go for only two weeks instead of three. This was done for many key reasons.

"Because of the hurricane and the delay in our start, we got to do our bullpens for longer and better," said Laval. "Then, when camp starts, we can give all of our pitchers about five or six innings in real work. Adrenaline will get you through the first two innings. But then when you begin to get tired in the fourth or fifth, you have to muster through it. And that helps later in the season."

Even with all that being said, Laval still deadpanned, "It is too early to declare a rotation."

Had Laval opted for three weeks of fall camp, NCAA regulations would have forced the team to begin practice a week later in January. With youth being a big attribute of his team, he thought it to be more beneficial to begin a week earlier in January to prep for the start of the season.

Also, he thinks it will help the pitchers.

"I hope there is an advantage with the pitchers," said Laval. "Most that come here are trying to do this for a living, so they will continue to condition themselves. But it is the muscle memory. You have got to get on the mound and set the tempo and get your rhythm back. But you got to do that live."

So with all the unproven promise of this LSU team, what is next?

"It is back to 4 on 1's (a term that means there is ratio of four players to one coach)," said Laval. "Out here, right now, you really can't break the individual down. We know what the veterans can do. But as far as the JUCO and high school guys, we can see what their strengths are and what they need work on. And now, we can go to work on their weaknesses and make sure their strengths stay the same or get better."

With his team taking shape the way it is, it is a little early to ask for predictions. However, Laval says he has no reason to believe SEC competition won't be any stiffer than usual.

"I don't know who left or who is back on other teams," says Laval. "But, I gotta believe the parody will be there."

That is one assumption that is safe to bet on. However, the more taxing question is where LSU will end up and whether or not this dual attack of youth and experience can last a whole season.

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