Total team effort

Paul Mainieri has been asked time and time again for his secret formula or the magic potion that he gave his team after the Georgia series. After all, his club reeled off 20 consecutive victories, won the conference tournament championship and is ranked as high as No. 2 in the country.

The Tigers have made a dramatic turnaround from being 23-16-1 overall and only 6-11-1 in the SEC just five weeks ago but one must look at the big picture and take a short trip down memory lane to see just how remarkable this resurgence has been.


Mainieri’s first season at LSU was not what many Tiger fans had hoped for, as well as the headman himself, but in all fairness to LSU’s skipper the expectations down on the bayou are higher than anywhere else in the country when it comes to baseball.


LSU finished the 2007 campaign with a 29-26-1 record and failed to make the conference tournament for the first time since the inception of the current format.


The talent that Mainieri inherited from Smoke Laval was not near the same level or caliber that helped make LSU one of the all-time great dynasties in college baseball but Mainieri, along with the help of Pitching Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Terry Rooney and Hitting Coach Cliff Godwin, set out to fix that.


The staff hit the recruiting trail and with only four months on the job managed to sign the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country for the 2007 class.


While Mainieri and the rest of his staff may have been new to the job they all knew what to say when they went into the homes to meet with the prospects and their parents.


“When we signed our kids in this last recruiting class we told them this is our first year as a coaching staff and we’re not the No. 1 team in the country right now but we’re still the No. 1 program in the country,” said Rooney. “That was the first thing I told all of the kids. I told them with one good recruiting class and if they decide not to go play professional baseball and to come to school here then we are going to be right back in the mix.”


With some of the pieces to the puzzle now in place the challenge for the coaches was to bring along the young guys and get them to contribute right away.


Perhaps, no area of the team needed the newcomers to contribute immediately more than the pitching staff.


The Tigers finished the 2007 campaign next to last in the SEC with a 5.10 team ERA and opponents hit .294 against the staff as a whole.


Rooney went out and got a plethora of young and talented pitchers and with the influx of talent, combined with two gritty veterans, the staff as a whole heads into the Baton Rouge Regional ranked second in the conference in team ERA at 3.89 and opponents are hitting only .258 against the Tigers, which is also good for second in the league.


That is a dramatic turnaround in only one year and while many were shocked with the progress of the pitching staff, Rooney wasn’t one of them.


“From the pitching standpoint, it was really similar to that of the entire team in that it was a matter of putting guys in the right situation and the right roles,” Rooney said. “We really felt like going into the year that we had one of the best pitching staffs in the country.”


Putting the right guys in the right roles took some time and to get everyone in place Rooney needed some guys LSU fans knew very little about to develop into SEC starters.


The second-year coach got what he was looking for as junior college transfer Ryan Verdugo settled into the Friday night role while Blake Martin and Jordan Brown rounded out the rotation, which allowed senior right-hander Jared Bradford to do what he did best.


“We knew that a big key for our pitching staff and to be one of the best in the country was to be able to have Jared Bradford available out of the bullpen and to use him on a more frequent basis,” Rooney said. “In order for that to happen we needed to have a couple of starting pitchers develop and that was what happened over the course of the year.”


An added bonus to LSU’s staff has been the reemergence of Louis Coleman.


The junior right-hander had an up and down first two years at LSU where he went from being a Friday night starter in his freshman year to a guy who was used primarily in a relief role the following year.


Coleman had a 2-3 mark with four saves and a 5.59 ERA during his sophomore campaign but one year later he has proved to be one of the Tigers’ best pitchers out of the bullpen with a 6-0 record, a pair of saves, and a brilliant 1.49 earned run average.


One thing that hampered Coleman during his sophomore season was some arm problems he was trying to get over but there was something else that also needed to be tweaked.


“In his first two years at LSU he pitched a lot of innings and he struggled a little bit and got hit a little bit during that time,” said Rooney. “In the off-season we sat down and asked him where he felt more comfortable with his arm slot and we kind of found a happy medium between the old arm slot and the sidearm.


“All of the credit goes to Louis Coleman because he never lost faith and he never lost his confidence,” Rooney added. “It’s great to see him go out there and do what he’s done and he is going to continue to help us and have a great shot to play professional baseball this year.”


Rooney will likely lose a couple of guys to the major league baseball draft in a few weeks but three true freshmen hurlers have him very excited about the future.


“That trio of freshmen is the future of our pitching staff in Austin Ross, Anthony Ranaudo, and Daniel Bradshaw,” said Rooney. “Those three guys are the future of LSU pitching. I think those three freshmen have seen that they all pitched in the SEC and they all know they can be successful.”


The vast improvements that LSU’s pitchers made under Rooney’s direction are only part of the equation to LSU’s success because Cliff Godwin has worked wonders with the Tigers at the plate.


LSU finished dead last in the SEC in hitting during the 2007 season with a .256 average.


The Tigers were also last in homeruns (40), slugging percentage (.379) and runs batted in (251).


Under Godwin’s direction, along with the help of the headman and other members of the staff, the Tigers raised their team batting average nearly 50 points and are currently hitting at a .304 clip as a team.


The long ball production will likely double from last season since the Tigers only need one more homer to hit 80 and they are second in the league in RBI (409) and third in slugging percentage (.497) headed into the Texas Southern game on Friday.


Godwin knew that it would take some time for the kids to buy into his philosophy and his way of doing things, but he also knew that he had the right people in place.


“Anytime you come in as a new coach it takes the guys some time to grasp your plan and to grasp the principles you want to use,” he said. “I think it’s a tribute to these guys that they have really worked hard and have bought into the stuff that we teach.


“I knew we were going to be a lot better but I don’t think you can ever say we are going to double our homeruns or improve our batting average by 50 points,” Godwin added. “Terry and I both went out and saw good players and brought in the No. 1 ranked recruiting class. Anytime you get an influx of talent like that it is going to be better and these kids have also worked their butts off. Talent plus hard work equals good things.”


The talent that Godwin is referring to includes four first-year players who are regular starters and who are also four of the top five hitters on the team in DJ LeMahieu, Matt Clark, Derek Helenihi and Micah Gibbs.


Clark has given LSU fans a does of the gorilla ball that some grew up watching and is ranked third nationally with 22 homeruns.


As impressive as Clark has been, though, the guy that has been steady as a rock all season and who is one of the hottest players in the country right now is Blake Dean.


The sophomore from Crestview, Fla. led the Tigers last season with a .316 average but he is crushing those numbers this year with a .346 average to go with 16 homers and a team-high 57 RBI.


Dean has been particularly hot during the winning streak as he is hitting .420 but he is quick to point out that he isn’t the only Tiger swinging a big stick.


“I think I’ve finally found my swing and got it all worked out,” Dean said. “I’m more relaxed at this point in the season because early on we were focusing on going out and trying to get wins. Now, I’m like everyone else and just feeding off the confidence. I don’t feel like I have to go out and push every run across or hit every homerun because you have guys like Clark and everyone else hitting the ball.”


For the Tigers to continue their success during post-season play they will have to continue to pitch and hit with the same authority they have all season long.


If Rooney and Godwin have anything to say about it they will continue to ride that wave and we all know the final destination but we will save that for another time and another story.


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