Back to Hoover

Headed to Hoover as the defending Southeastern Conference Tournament champions, the No. 2 LSU baseball team is anxious to repeat. Kicking off against eight-seed Vanderbilt on Wednesday, head coach Paul Mainieri and his crew are keeping their focus on the prize.

2009 SEC regular season Co-champion LSU (41-15, 20-10 SEC) heads to Hoover, Ala., this week as the tournament’s top seed.

While Vanderbilt has yet to name their opening game starter, Mainieri has called upon sophomore Austin Ross (5-6, 5.07 ERA).

The right-hander worked as the Sunday starter throughout the spring, throwing 65.2 innings of work and striking out 58 batters on 14 appearances.

With Anthony Ranaudo (7-3, 3.26 ERA) set to follow against either South Carolina or Alabama on Thursday, the Tiger skipper is putting the pieces together for another run at the title.

Yet, Mainieri said that the main focus of the week would remain simple – have fun.

“It was a great experience last year, and I think that our players enjoyed it more than any other time that we had,” he said. “It was a fun time for our team, and the guys were confident. We want to have that experience again, and hopefully we can stay up there a while.”

Wearing a grin from ear-to-ear for much of Monday’s practice, Mainieri straightened his face and stepped back as he reflected upon where his coaching career has come.

“When I was at Notre Dame, I felt like our whole season was riding on what we did in the Big East Tournament,” he said. “It was unbelievable pressure. Now, however, I am in a place where most experts would say that we have a good chance of getting an NCAA bid already.

“Most people would also think we are hosting at least a first round and possibly a second round,” he added. “There is no pressure for us to win or our season would be over.”

With no added weight on their shoulders, Mainieri said that his club should look to soak up the conference’s talent for all its worth as they gear up for their postseason run to Omaha.

 “We are going to enjoy the competition, and that is what will make this tournament a lot of fun,” he said. “Make no mistake about it, however, we are going to win. We are putting on the LSU uniform and going to win it.

“I told the guys that we are the only team in the tournament that can call themselves the defending champions, so it is our job to get out there and defend it.”

LSU has compiled a 54-34 all-time record in the SEC Tournament, and the Tigers have captured seven tournament titles (1986, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 2000 and 2008).

If the Bayou Bengals were to repeat, they would become the first team to win back-to-back tournament crowns since Alabama won in 2002 and 2003.

The Commodores, who enter the week unranked, last met the Tigers in the second round of the 2008 SEC Tournament, where LSU posted an 8-2 victory.

Vanderbilt, who is batting .308 as a team with 44 home runs and 85 stolen bases on the year, is led at the plate by freshman Aaron Westlake. The Commodore standout is hitting .382 with 48 RBI.

Sophomores Steven Liddle and Curt Casali have also been hot of late, batting .347 with 43 RBI and .347 with 52 RBI, respectively.

Sophomore DJ LeMahieu and junior Blake Dean - two of the nation’s most touted college prospects – lead the way for the Tigers.

LeMahieu is batting a team-high .350 with 29 RBI, while Dean is hitting .330 with 58 RBI.

LSU leads the all-time series with Vanderbilt, 48-30, though the Commodores have won five of the past seven meetings between the clubs.

First pitch is set for 5 p.m. CT Wednesday at Regions Park.

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