Mainieri, Tigers Hit The Ground Running

With three weeks to go before LSU hosts Indiana to the open the '08 season, a new and improved Tiger baseball team and coaching staff conducted their first full squad practice on a brisk Friday night in Alex Box Stadium.

After a thorough warm up, the Tigers split into their respective position groups and began a series of drills. A plentiful stable of pitchers – they added 10 hurlers in the offseason – worked out in the left field corner of the stadium while various players from around the horn took batting practice with their skipper Paul Mainieri when they weren't practicing running drills.

After finishing the drills, the Tigers had a seven-inning purple and white scrimmage to end the first practice.

"We're not going to set any limits on what this team can accomplish," Mainieri said. "I feel like we have a little ways to go before we are where we need to be, but I think we will be ready by the time we play Indiana. We certainly believe we can compete with anyone in the SEC."

A small but excited group of fans fought the frigid temperatures at Alex Box to catch a first glimpse of this year's diamond squad.

Longtime baseball fans Michael and Debbie Watson of Baton Rouge were on hand for the scrimmage and are especially optimistic for this year's team, despite the disappointing '07 effort.

"The thing people don't realize is that Coach (Mainieri) basically had to come in and work with a lot of players that he really didn't know," Michael Watson said while sitting by his wife Debbie, who was wrapped up in her purple and gold blankets. "He (Mainieri) went out and got a great bunch of recruits and was able to get some depth in certain positions. I expect them to be a completely different team this season. And after seeing them out here tonight, it just gets me more excited for Indiana."

Mainieri and staff are still in the process of ironing out who is going to play where in some spots on the field, but for the most part has the general lineup shaping up the way he figured.

One thing is for certain: Senior Jared Bradford will be in the running for claiming the rights to ace of this year's Tiger pitching staff. Mainieri said Bradford had one of the best seasons of any pitcher he has ever coached last year when the 6-1, 175-pound right-hander went 10-4 in 11 starts and also tacked on five saves.

"The guy (Bradford) was money for us last year," Mainieri said. "Remember that I had Aaron Heilman (former pitcher for Notre Dame and now with the New York Mets), and he went 15-0 with 15 starts in 2001 when I was at Notre Dame. I would compare what Jared did for our team last season to what Heilman did for us at Notre Dame. He had an unbelievable year. Any role I put him in he responded, and he is just a phenomenal player. You can talk all you want about our recruiting class being the number-one ranked recruiting class, but for me, the best thing for our team this year is that Bradford came back for his senior year. That gives us great hope."

Left-handed JUCO import Ryan Verdugo and junior Hahnville native Jordan Brown will be competing with Bradford for the top spot in the rotation. One of the three hurlers will certainly be the closer as well, according to Mainieri.

Veteran holdovers Nolan Cain, Louis Coleman, and Ryan Byrd will also be in the mix as contributing arms.

The burning question that everyone seems to be infatuated with is how Chad Jones will fit into the lineup. Mainieri says while he still is trying to figure out exactly how to use Jones, it is apparent that Jones is a stellar athlete.

"You can't teach bat speed, and he's got it," Mainieri said. "I don't know what's going to happen with him because he wasn't with us in the fall. He might come out and trump everybody. If he doesn't come out and really make an impact, it's going to be because we have other players. We're pretty deep in the outfield right now."

Ryan Schimpf, Jared Mitchell, Blake Dean, and freshmen Leon Landry and Johnny Dishon will all be possible options in the outfield.

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