Change for the better

The LSU baseball team – 42 wins and a Southeastern Conference Tournament crown to their name – secured the No. 3 national seed in the NCAA Tournament this past Monday. With the Regional making a stop in Baton Rouge once more, how does this year's squad stack up to the Tigers of 2008?

Last season’s LSU baseball team was on quite the tear by the time the postseason made a pit stop at Alex Box Stadium.

Winners up 43 up to that point, head coach Paul Mainieri’s crew would sweep through Texas Southern and Southern Miss before seeing their 23-game win streak come to an end in the Super Regional against UC-Irvine.

Fans won’t soon forget the late game heroics that those Tigers conjured up to close out The Box. Yet, the 2009 Tigers have fans wondering if this will be the year to remember.

Securing a Southeastern Conference Tournament title once more, LSU looks to be carrying a new swagger.

With a weekend staff that has combined for 24 wins and a freshman closer with an LSU record 14 saves to boot, the play from the mound is one place to start observing the change of pace.

“Last year the pitching staff was really solid, but we lacked the top-end dominating guy like we have now with [Anthony] Ranaudo,” Mainieri said. “[Ryan] Verdugo and [Blake] Martin were solid pitchers, and [Jared] Bradford – he was all world for us. But there was not an overpowering guy who will strike out 13 to 15 batters a game. Ranaudo can do that for us.

“[Louis] Coleman has moved into the starting role – and I don’t have to say anything about how great he has been,” he added. “Then, Matty Ott stepping into the closer role adds another dimension to this team. The core is the same, but there are the little differences here and there that make this a new year.”

With 297 strikeouts between Ranaudo, Coleman and Ross, the proof is in the pudding.

“The ability for us to throw strikes and pound the zone is our biggest change,” Coleman said. “Walks kill you, so for us to stay ahead and keep guys off base is big.”

Help from the likes of Daniel Bradshaw, Nolan Cain and Ryan Byrd – as highlighted by the trio’s three wins in the SEC Tournament – will only add strength to the Tigers’ chances.

“If those guys step up like that, then we have depth in the bullpen that we did not have before,” Coleman said. “We have the confidence in each guy to do that for us, and that is something I think that is evident this year.”

Never too far off from his staff’s ace in train of thought, Mainieri could not agree more.

“Last season, I don’t know if the players believed as much as I believed in them until we started the winning streak,” he said. “Once we started that streak, everything started to snowball. This year, we started right from scratch with having self-confidence first. That gave us confidence in the team and what we can do, and we have been very consistent all year because of that.”

One benefit for whomever takes the hill – the Tigers can play defense.

“We have the best infield in the country, no doubt in my mind,” Coleman said. “We have the best shortstop in baseball playing second base, and with him playing deep at second we can do a lot more things. We are more athletic than last year with the other guys that have stepped in.”

Those other guys – freshman shortstop Austin Nola and freshman third baseman Tyler Hanover – have joined second baseman DJ LeMahieu and first baseman Ryan Schimpf to form the battle-tested defensive wall across the infield.

“Hanover, Nola and [freshman centerfielder] [Mikie] Mahtook have all brought something to our team to improve us in some areas,” Mainieri said. “We are a lot stronger because of that. We will see how far this team can go.”

According to Schimpf – who is batting .324 with a team-high 17 home runs – the Tigers can go as far as their hearts desire.

“We have not peaked yet, and that is the biggest difference from last season,” he said. “Something can happen for us here if we get out and take the fight to them. We have enough veterans to know how to act, because we have been there before.”

Having been there before, of course, is a change from the mentality the Tigers took into uncharted waters in 2008.

“When we ran up against a team like North Carolina in the World Series last year, we sat back and knew that they had more experience,” LeMahieu said. “This year that will be us, and it will definitely help.”

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