Tigers open baseball practice Monday

The 2006 LSU baseball squad opens preseason practice at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Alex Box Stadium, as the Tigers begin preparing for their Feb. 10 opener at home versus North Florida.

LSU is ranked No. 15 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 20 by Baseball America in preseason polls released in recent weeks. The Tigers, who reported to campus at the end of last week, have been engaged in conditioning sessions and individual workouts.

Smoke Laval's first four seasons as coach of the Tigers have featured several significant accomplishments, as he has directed the Tigers to two College World Series appearances, one SEC championship, two SEC Western Division titles and two Top 10 finishes. 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.  

The 2005 Tigers posted a 40-22 overall mark, winning 13 of their final 17 conference games to claim the SEC Western Division crown. LSU then played host to an NCAA Regional tournament for the 16th consecutive season.

Laval hopes to build upon those achievements in 2006, though some of the Tigers' methods may change. Laval's previous clubs have, for the most part, been veteran teams with powerful sluggers. The '06 LSU squad is a young group (25 freshmen and sophomores) that will take a different offensive approach. 

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

LSU, which finished the 2005 season ranked No. 18 in the nation, welcomes 15 returning lettermen – including seven pitchers and six position players with starting experience -- and a 14-man signing class.  

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 batting order 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."

LSU 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 rely upon the leadership of senior 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. Harris, a first baseman in his first three collegiate seasons, may be moved to third base in 2006.

Two more seniors with considerable experience – Bruce Sprowl (96 career starts) and 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 also feature 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. Jackson could see action both at second and third base this season.  

Mayer, who may play first base in ‘06, 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 Michael Hollander (.246, 1 HR, 14 RBI) returns as the Tigers' projected starting shortstop. He saw substantial playing time as a freshman, appearing in 44 games (38 starts). 

Four true freshmen – outfielder Jarred Bogany, infielder J.T. Wise, catcher Robert Lara and infielder Jason Ogata – will be counted upon to make immediate contributions. Bogany (15th round, Pittsburgh), Lara (17th round, Minnesota) and Ogata (50th round, San Diego) were 2005 draft selections, and Wise was impressive at the plate during LSU's fall drills.

Steven Waguespack, a transfer from Delgado Community College in New Orleans, could break into the lineup as a first baseman or DH. Redshirt freshman Kade Keowen swung the bat well during fall drills and should compete for a position in the LSU outfield.

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