Baseball in the air

Fall baseball practice swings into action on Thursday afternoon and after ending a three-year hiatus and making a return trip to its second home in Omaha, expectations are at their usual peak in Baton Rouge.

The Tigers return 25 players from a squad that had one of the best runs in SEC history which included a record 23-game winning streak, an SEC Western Division and SEC Tournament Championship, to go with their Regional and Super Regional Championships.  


Paul Mainieri will welcome all of those veterans with open arms and he also welcomes the high expectations that the Tiger faithful has for his 2009 club.


“One of the things we love about this place is the passion that the fans have for all LSU sports and for this baseball program,” Mainieri said. “This is really a special place and to be here is truly an honor.”


The Tigers will go through 35 practice sessions which will wrap up on November 7 after a three-game Purple vs. Gold World Series on November 4-6.


Mainieri uses this time to go back to the basics and make sure his players know what he expects of them. He also puts them in game-like situations to see who he can count on when the season rolls around in February.


“Every fall my goal is two-fold,” said the skipper. “The first goal is to go back to square one and begin working on all of the fundamentals of the game again.


“The second thing you want to accomplish is finding who are the players you can count on,” added Mainieri. “We play a lot of scrimmage games where almost everyday we will have some degree of scrimmage whether it be four innings or it might be six innings. But the only way you can find out which kids are the ones you can count on is by putting them into competitive-game situations and that’s the pitchers, as well as the position players.”


In Mainieri’s 26 years of coaching at the college level he has learned that when his first two goals are accomplished there is something else that develops which is vital to a team’s success.


“You hope that your team develops a great level of confidence, a swagger if you may, so when the season begins they feel they are well prepared, we have the right guys on the field, and we’re ready to get after it and go out and beat somebody,” Mainieri said.


That swagger and confidence that LSU’s headman referred to should already be there since the Tigers return seven of nine regulars from last season’s lineup led by Blake Dean, who was a Baseball America First Team All-America selection as a sophomore.


The junior from Bradenton, Fla. finished the season hitting .353 with 20 homers, 18 doubles, and 73 runs batted in.


Over the last 29 games, Dean was one of the hottest hitters in the country, coming up with clutch hit after clutch hit for the Tigers. During that span he batted .387 with 13 doubles, 12 homeruns, and he tallied 41 of his 70 RBI.


Baseball America has Dean rated as one of the top pure hitters in college baseball for the 2009 campaign, but despite the accolades and past success, Mainieri hasn’t seen any change in Dean’s approach to the game.


“Blake just has an aura about him,” said Mainieri. “He’s been through it. He knows he’s good and knows he’s had as big of hits as anyone has in college baseball short of Warren Morris, of course. That has to give a person a great deal of self confidence but Blake is not an arrogant person at all.


“He’s a great team guy who cares very deeply about the success of the team. I think he carries himself like a veteran who has been through a lot of the battles and has had success and knows that he’s going to do it again.”


Another guy who is expected to tote a big bat up to the plate is Ryan Schimpf, who batted .320 and tied for the team lead in steals with 16.


The junior second baseman was one of the top all-around performers, leading the Tigers in triples (7), tying for the team lead in doubles (18), and finishing third in homers (12) and RBI (54).


Like Dean, Schimpf exploded late in the season in post-season play by hitting .452 with five doubles, a triple, two homers and nine RBI.


That explosion carried over into the summer where Schimpf batted .392 and slammed 11 homers and 27 RBI in 27 games with Luray of the wooden-bat Valley League.


That production surely surprised many scouts that follow college players during the summer and it amazed someone much closer to home.


“The things that he did this past summer even I’m amazed at,” Mainieri said. “He hit 11 homeruns and only struck out nine times which I didn’t think was possible to do. Usually homerun hitters strikeout a lot so when you have more homeruns than strikeouts then that’s telling you a guy is a complete hitter.”


The combination of Dean, Schimpf, and the rest of the gang has Mainieri feeling good about the potential at the plate in 2009.


“I think offensively we are in really good shape,” said Mainieri. “I almost feel like we have eight of nine starting players back, counting Sean Ochinko, so that’s a lot of familiarity with our players and a lot of experience. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this team is because we have that experience.”


The offensive firepower has the Tiger coaches excited and the same can be said for their pitchers, especially now that Louis Coleman is back.


The senior right-hander was selected in the 14th round of the draft by the Washington Nationals after the remarkable second half of the year he had last season.


Coleman posted an 8-1 record with a 1.95 ERA on the year but he kicked it up several notches when LSU went on its streak.


Over the final 29 contests, the Schlater, Miss. native was 6-1 with a couple of saves and gave Mainieri some much-needed depth out of the bullpen.


“Having him back is a tremendous boost and a great shot in the arm for our team,” Mainieri said. “We have a veteran guy, an experienced guy, a leader, and a dominating pitcher. Not only that, he is versatile to pitch in different roles.”


Defining Coleman’s role is something that Mainieri has yet to put his finger on and although he would like to have him serve in only one capacity there is a possibility that he could be this year’s version of Jared Bradford, who signed with St. Louis as an 18th round pick.


While some coaches like having the flexibility of using a guy as a starter, a middle man, or a closer, Mainieri hopes to be able to use his top gun in one capacity.


“I like the flexibility it gives you but I hope that we’ll have a deep enough staff to where I want have to use Louis like we did with Jared,” he said. “But, I’m not sure how we’re going to use him yet, whether he’s going to be a closer, a starter, or a setup man.”


Jordan Brown was another bonus that Mainieri received over the summer when the senior right-hander elected to return after being picked in the 39th round by the Chicago Cubs.


If Brown would have forgone his final season of eligibility then that would have meant that LSU would have lost its three top starting pitchers from last season.


Ryan Verdugo signed with the San Francisco Giants after being taken in the ninth round and Blake Martin inked with Minnesota after the Twins used their 17th round pick on the southpaw hurler.


The Tigers have a deep stable of arms with 11 of the 15 guys who took the mound in 2008 returning this year.


Three of those four pitchers that are gone, though, started 45 of the 69 games from a year ago and filling that void could fall into the hands of four guys, including Coleman.


“The three kids who were freshmen last year, Anthony Reynaudo, Daniel Bradshaw, and Austin Ross, as well as our senior Jordan Brown. If those four guys can take it to another level then we have a chance to be better than we were last year on the mound,” said Mainieri. “Now, if they don’t take it to another level then the loss of Verdugo, Bradford, and Martin is going to play huge. But I have a lot of confidence that those kids are going to take it to another level.”


Also factoring into the mix will be the 10 freshmen signees Mainieri brought in with the 2008 class.


However, with all of the returning veterans combined with the unknowns that come with a freshman, Mainieri is holding out judgment on who will see early playing time from the ’08 class.


“It’s just you don’t know which ones will help immediately,” said Mainieri. “The ones that will help immediately will be based on what our needs are and with so many guys coming back we don’t know what that will be. But last year we had Micah Gibbs who unseated an incumbent guy and maybe one of these kids will do that. You just don’t know.”


Something that isn’t an unknown to Mainieri is what he expects from his coaching staff.


David Grewe came over from Michigan State to replace Terry Rooney as pitching coach and associate head coach, while Javi Sanchez was promoted to fill the void left by Cliff Godwin, who went to Central Florida with Rooney.


Will Davis also moved up to take Sanchez’s spot as volunteer assistant coach and in spite of the changes, Mainieri expects the transition to go smoothly.


“There’s already a great deal of familiarity and it’s not like I have to train them into what I want,” said Mainieri. “They already know me and my personality and what my expectations are. That makes the transition in my opinion a much more seamless transition.”


It may be football season at LSU but with the cooler temperatures that have hit Baton Rouge the last few days it almost feels like spring.


And the music blaring from the Box and baseballs landing on Nicholson Drive will only add to it.

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