Role players

While it takes nine guys to field a starting lineup, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri knows as well as any of the necessity of depth. With his card changing by the week, the play of a handful of reserves has become paramount.

Call it what you want – from a sophomore slump to LSU’s recruitment of a second straight knock-out recruiting class – but the 2009 season did not play out as Leon Landry had intended.

With 57 starts during his freshman campaign (51 of those in center field), Landry looked the part of a sure-bet to hold down a slot in the Tiger outfield the following season.

Welcome freshman Mikie Mahtook into the frame.

The Lafayette-native – recently named the Southeastern Conference Tournament’s Most Valuable Player – is batting .323 over 41 starts in center.

Landry, who has also notched 41 starts in the outfield, is on the heels of the freshman - batting .305 with 12 home runs.

So, when the lineup card is posted just prior to each game, Landry is quick to take a glance.

“I just try to stay focused in until my number is called,” he said. “If I see that I am set to go, then I will be ready. If not, then I am going to be ready anyhow.”

That same preparation is shared by first baseman Sean Ochinko – the man who usually sees the field when Landry does not.

“I approach every day like a full-time starter,” he said. “I even act surprised if I don’t see my name on the card. It helps me stay locked in.”

It typically shakes down as follows:

When Ochinko is in the game at first base, Ryan Schimpf moves to left field and Blake Dean steps into the designated hitter spot – as seen against Minnesota in the Regional title game.

When Mainieri goes with Landry in left, Dean settles into the designated hitter spot and Schimpf takes first base – as seen against Baylor in the second game of the Regional.

The decision on who to toss into the order, unlike the rest of the lineup calls Mainieri must make, is not that tough to figure out.

“With those two, it just comes down to whether a left-hander or a right-hander is on the mound for the opposition,” he said.

After a few moments of reflection, the headman quickly backtracked.

“I actually had Sean against a right-hander the other day, so maybe it is not so cut and dry.”

The situation at third base is even cloudier.

Derek Helenihi started 41 games in right field for the Tigers in 2008. Add his ten starts at the hot corner for an injured Michael Hollander, and the senior becomes one of the Tigers most versatile athletes.

Helenihi began his 2009 campaign at third base, only to be bumped ten games in by freshman Tyler Hanover. A short stint in right field would be had, but Mahtook’s development and the eventual entrance of freshman Austin Nola at shortstop would provide too many bodies and not enough standing room.

Helenihi, a one-time junior college standout turned starter for Mainieri, was back in the dugout.

Yet, while he has notched just ten starts since taking to the bench, the senior’s impact has been felt time and again.

Case in point: Last Friday against Southern in game one of the Regional, the senior, stepping in to pinch hit for Chris McGhee in the seventh, roped a double to left field – scoring two runs to extend the LSU lead to 8-2.

After the game, Mainieri would describe it as the hit of the night.

“I knew that if I put him in there, Derek would do something special,” he said. “He is the kind of player who wants to be in that spotlight.”

Needless to say, he is not the only one.

When Helenihi earned the start at third base against Minnesota on Sunday, Hanover – as he had been against Villanova in the season opener - was back on the bench.

“I take it as it goes, but I would obviously like to be out there everyday,” Hanover said.

Errors in the field, which the freshman became unfortunately familiar with in Hoover, surely plays into getting a more experienced Helenihi to the hot corner when need be.

Hanover, however, feels confident that his troubles are in his rearview.

“I feel like with the season and then the SEC Tournament and now the Regional, I have settled into a comfort zone,” he said. “I want the pressure to be on me now, because I am the type of player that lives for it. Pressure is what separates players, and I want to be on the positive end of the separation.”

According to Mainieri, no matter who is on which end of the separation – the confidence level is there.

“The way I look at it, I have eleven starters on this team,” he said. “Given the day, I can toss Leon or Sean or Derek or Tyler out there, and I know we won’t miss a beat.

While Mainieri points out the obvious reasons for wanting depth – from injuries to slumps – the coming weeks will provide a platform where everyone is healthy and in full stride.

That said, what becomes the deciding factor for Mainieri in whether or not to shuffle his 11-card deck?

“It usually just comes down to a gut feeling,” he said with an honest smile. “But, that is a great feeling to have. It is not often that a team has this kind of depth.”

Could that depth be enough to tip the scale in the Tigers’ favor come Omaha?

“I think if anything is different about this team compared to last year, it is our depth,” Dean said. “I think it might be enough.”

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