PREVIEW: Mainieri, Tigers Ready To Run

With a disappointing record of 29-26 last season, LSU coach Paul Mainieri knew he had some re-structuring and revamping to do in the off-season.

A tremendous recruiting class – ranked number one in the nation by Collegiate Baseball Magazine – along with returning key Tiger veterans gives Mainieri a refreshing sense of optimism going into the upcoming season.

LSU brings in nine players that were drafted by the Major League teams, all of whom chose the Tigers over the money of professional baseball. Overall, LSU returns 18 players while bringing in 20 newcomers.

"It's like I told the players, I'm not going to put limitations on this team," Mainieri said. "I'm not going to put limitations on what this team can do. It will not surprise me if this team wins the national championship. It also wouldn't surprise me if the best we could do is make it to the SEC Tournament and make it into a regional and have a decent showing at a regional."

Mainieri, in his second season as LSU's skipper, said his hope is that this years Tiger squad will be able to find a way to generate more run support for the pitching staff – which was LSU's most glaring problem last season.

The Tigers had an impressive 14-6 record in one to two run games, but getting multiple runs on the board was the most common obstacle throughout most of last season.

"If we didn't win the majority of those close games, our record could have been a lot worse than it was," Mainieri said. "Now I'm hoping that we can still win those close games, but also win some games going away. We never blew anybody out last year. We just couldn't do it. I don't think that will be the case with this team."

Mainieri addressed LSU's lack of firepower by bringing in two junior college standouts, who were teammates at Riverside (Calif.) Community College.

Infielder Matt Clark will move over to the first base position for the Tigers after having played third base during his time at Riverside. The 6-5, 235-pound Clark is a huge target in the infield and packs an even bigger bat – hitting .350 in 2007 with 15 homers, 70 RBI and a .620 slugging percentage.

Rene Escobar also adds another valuable stick to the Tigers lineup. Escobar, a 2007 Junior College All-American at Riverside, was the 2007 Orange Empire Conference Player of the Year.

"The caliber of ball they played in junior college was really high," said Mainieri of his two California acquisitions. "I feel that they should make us a much better hitting team right away."

Mainieri agrees the addition of talented junior college and freshman players should heighten LSU's chances in the SEC West. However, the decision of a few veteran players to return for another season is what could make the difference in ‘08.

The Tiger coach was particularly high on Jared Bradford's decision to put off the Major Leagues for another season. The right handed senior pitcher – who will most likely be the Tigers' Friday night starter – picked up a team-high 10 wins as a junior in 2007.

"You can talk all you want about our recruiting class being the number one ranked recruiting class," Mainieri said. "But for me, the best thing for our team this year is that Bradford came back for his senior year. It gives us great hope."

The 2007 season was one of unexpected challenges and obstacles for Mainieri. Having been in Baton Rouge for well over a year now, the 50-year old coach claims he feels right at home in the Capital City as well as SEC country.

"It's amazing how important it is to have one year in the SEC under your belt," Mainieri said. "I have been coaching for 25 years, but in a lot a ways I felt like a rookie last season. But now, it's been a year and a half and I feel like I have been here my whole life. I know the people. I know the community. I know the fans and I know my players better.

"It almost feels like being reborn. I feel totally in control of the program. I understand what it takes for us to be successful and now it's just going out there and doing it."

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