Mainieri placing focus on pitching

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri stood before a huge gathering of media last month at his introductory press conference and was asked to summarize his coaching philosophy. He answered without hesitation.

"There is one common denominator with all successful baseball teams – pitching," Mainieri said. "You have to pitch in order to win. The first priority for me is to get our pitching staff to perform at the highest level to give us a chance to win.


"Pitching will be the No. 1 point of emphasis to make us competitive on a consistent basis."


Mainieri's success in developing pitchers in 12 seasons as the head coach at Notre Dame provides insight into what he is capable of accomplishing at LSU.


Notre Dame was one of just four schools from 1998-2001 that produced two pitchers who were drafted in the first round -- Brad Lidge of the Houston Astros (1998) and Aaron Heilman of the New York Mets (2001).


Mainieri and his staff consistently have molded players into top prospects, as Lidge was just a 42nd-round pick out of high school while Heilman was a 54th-round pick. Lidge's development is especially impressive, as he did not begin pitching until his senior year of high school.


Four other recent Irish pitchers developed into high draft picks despite going undrafted as prep players, including Tim Kalita (7th round in 1999), Danny Tamayo (10th round in 2001), J.P. Gagne (13th round in 2003) and Jeff Samardzija (5th round in 2006).


Heilman said Mainieri's ability to develop pitchers comes as product of the strong relationships he cultivates with his players.


"Coach Mainieri knows the game but he knows his players even better," Heilman said. "He knows how to manage players extremely well - knowing who he has to push harder and who he needs to give space, always getting the best out of his players.


"His door was always open and he was willing to listen to whatever was on your mind - all while treating everyone with the respect they deserved and caring about the person and his life."


Mainieri explained that he and LSU pitching coach Terry Rooney – who worked under Mainieri at Notre Dame for the past three seasons – place great emphasis on the physical well-being of their pitchers.


"We are very concerned at all times about the health of our pitchers," Mainieri said. "One thing that we take tremendous pride in is our care and concern for the pitching staff."


"Winning games and using discretion in the way you utilize your pitchers can occur concurrently. You can enjoy success as a team without risking a pitcher's health. We look forward to working with physically talented kids and teaching them how to win the right way."


Rooney, who signed current Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander while serving as the recruiting coordinator at Old Dominion, brings to LSU the concept of "offensive pitching" that focuses on aspects the pitchers can control – being mechanically sound, working to advantage counts, high first-pitch strike percentages and controlling the running game.


The 2006 draft provided evidence of the value of Rooney's method, as it marked the first time three Irish pitchers were selected by MLB clubs – right-hander Jeff Samardzija (fifth round, Chicago Cubs), right-hander Jeff Manship (14th round, Minnesota Twins) and left-hander Tom Thornton (21st round, Detroit Tigers).


Two other Notre Dame products of the Rooney system were early-round draft picks in 2005 – right-hander Grant Johnson was a second-round selection (Chicago Cubs) and right-hander Chris Niesel was a ninth-round choice (Cleveland Indians).


Rooney also supervised the development in 2006 of right-hander Kyle Weiland, who was third in the nation with 16 saves and earned first-team Freshman all-America recognition.


"Pitcher development is one of the cornerstones of our program," Rooney said, "and we had a lot of success at Notre Dame in helping young guys grow into professional prospects. Our system is predicated on having an excellent strikeouts-to-walks ratio, and we've produced great results with that philosophy."


Rooney's 2006 staff set or tied four Notre Dame records -- strikeouts thrown (504), saves (18), staff strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.95; 504/171) and fewest wild pitches (0.38/gm).


The Irish also allowed just 18 home runs last season for the best HR average by Notre Dame in the 12-season Mainieri era (0.29 HR allowed/gm).


Mainieri firmly believes LSU can reclaim its position as one of college baseball's dominant programs. Effective pitching will be the primary ingredient in achieving that objective.


"Make no mistake about it," he said. "The goal is to return LSU to the pinnacle position in college baseball. If we don't do it, it is not going to be because of lack of effort, I can assure you. I have all the confidence in the world that we can do that here."


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