For most, it felt like only yesterday when Louis Coleman struck out the final Texas batter to give LSU its sixth College World Series title – and first since 2000.
Yet for head coach Paul Mainieri, that June night can feel like ages ago. On Friday, Mainieri will take a new team – minus many of the championship puzzles’ biggest pieces – and begin a new season, one LSU hopes ends in Omaha for the third year in a row.
“This is the first season that I’ve ever had the experience of being the defending national champion,” said Mainieri at Wednesday’s baseball media day. “I’m kind of looking forward to that actually. I hope we can experience that in future years also.
“I can tell you that we are approaching this year just like we have approached every year,” he added in response to whether the team feels pressure to repeat their 2009 finish. “I feel that every season is an entity into its own. One of my favorite things I say to my players is that the new season does not begin at the point that the last season ended. Every year is a new year, and guys that performed last year need to continue to perform. Otherwise, somebody is going to take their place.”
A New Look
On Wednesday, Mainieri announced his starting lineup for Friday’s opening game with Centenary.
1 – Trey Watkins – LF
2 – Austin Nola – SS
3 – Blake Dean – 1B
4 – Tyler Hanover – 2B
5 – Micah Gibbs – C
6 – Leon Landry – CF
7 – Mikie Mahtook – RF
8 – Matt Gaudet – DH
9 – Wet Delatte – 3B
Trey Watkins, the newest face in the lineup, is in Baton Rouge after spending his freshman season at LSU-Eunice. A Destrehan High standout, Maineri pegged Watkins as perhaps the biggest addition to the batting order.
“Quite frankly, throughout my 28 years of coaching, I have not had a lot of true lead-off hitters – guys who can take pitches, get on base any way that they can, still be good hitters, steal bases and also have a bit of power,” Mainieri said. “Trey Watkins may be the best lead-off hitter I’ve had in a decade. I’m really excited about what he can bring to the team.”
The next six names in the lineup are all back after playing significant roles on last season’s title team. Blake Dean, who decided to return for his senior season and will get the start at first base, is the clear-cut leader for LSU at the plate.
“Having Blake Dean back for his senior year, to me made all the difference in the world as far as the confidence of our team offensively,” Mainieri said. “He’s taking to first base as though he’s played it his whole life. He’s going to be outstanding there. I think whenever you write out the lineup you always start out with No. 34 in that three-spot and fill in around him, and you know you’re going to have a pretty good offensive team.”
Matt Gaudet, a senior who has stepped into the designated hitter role for LSU, will be one of the names that the staff has their eye on early. If the senior slips, a number of bats are waiting to step into the fold.
“Gaudet was our starting designated hitter two years ago until he started having some back problems about 15 games into the season and had to go on the disabled list for the rest of the 2008 season,” Mainieri said. “Everybody knows that he didn’t play last year, but he’s back as our starting DH, so he has starting experience.”
Wet Delatte, playing third base and batting in the nine spot, is another new face to keep an eye on through the opening weekend.
“The big question mark in my mind was going to be third base, and we have [Delatte] out of St. Amant High School who is really coming along,” Mainieri said. “His preseason workouts, he seems to be improving with each passing day, so he gives us a lot of confidence.”
Turning From Power Into Speed?
With the loss of big bats like Ryan Schimpf’s, the Tigers 107 home run total might be a mark that the 2010 squad won’t put much focus on.
Instead, expect the Tigers to win the close ones with their legs.
“I think our speed is going to be outstanding,” Mainieri said. “When you’ve got guys like Watkins, Landry, Mahtook and Hanover in the lineup, these guys can steal bases. There are going to be some times we are going to need to steal some bases, and we’re going to certainly utilize that as part of our offensive attack.
“In some ways, it’ll be very comparable to last year’s team,” he added. “In some ways, it might be a little bit different. New players will come in, so the makeup of your team will certainly be different to a certain degree. I do think we still have some good power.”
With the team fresh off a second trip to Omaha – this one which lasted through the final series and into a third game – the Tigers are certainly not lacking big-game experience.
One look at the run the Tigers made during and after the SEC Tournament, a weekend in which they dropped their opener before capturing the conference crown, and the mental shape of the team when things get tough can’t be questioned.
And, with names like Jared Mitchell, Sean Ochinko, Ryan Schimpf, DJ LeMahieu and Louis Coleman no longer on deck, Mainieri is looking for the young names – the same men he inserted into the lineup last spring – to step up their roles.
“It’s impossible to replace those kinds of guys man for man, so what has to happen is the whole concept of synergy,” Mainieri said. “We just have to be greater than the sum of the parts. That means guys like Austin Nola, Micah Gibbs, Mikie Mahtook and all the returning players have to be better than they were last year to make up for the difference.”
For the man who was born into a coaching family, one should expect that the ins and outs of last season’s decision making would prove pivotal not just for the 2009 team, but for future squads as well.
Just look at the move to insert Nola, a freshman, into the lineup midway through the season, which moved LeMahieu to second base and Schimpf into left field. While many pointed to the coaching call as one of the main reasons the team clicked down the stretch, Maineri admitted it was as much about then as it was about now.
“There was a little bit of ulterior motive besides just thinking that would make our team better last year, which I think it turned out to do,” he said. “The other thing about putting Nola in, as well as Hanover and Mahtook, was I wanted to go into the 2010 season with some experience on our team.
“If we had played our starting lineup the whole year from the first game of the season, assuming we were going to also lose Blake Dean, I thought there was a real possibility we would lose seven of our nine starting players,” he added.
Thanks to the moves, the 2010 starting nine looks familiar nearly from top to bottom.
“As it turned out, even though we lost five starters that were in the lineup in the last game of the College World Series, I don’t feel like we’ve lost as much because Hanover and Leon Landry were not starting players in Omaha, yet they started approximately 50 games each last year. When you add them into the lineup, and of course Blake coming back, I really feel like we have six starting players returning to our team.”
Pitching Rotation is Set … For Now
Anthony Ranaudo, both an All-SEC and All-American performer in 2009, is back on the hill for LSU on Friday nights. After a 12-3 finish during his sophomore year, talks have swirled that Ranaudo could be among the top picks in the 2010 MLB Draft.
With sophomore Matty Ott – who saved an LSU school record 16 games in 2009 – coming out of the pen to save the Tigers in late innings, the 1-2 punch on Friday nights is certainly among the best in the country.
“Any time you start a staff with Anthony and Matty, you’re going to have a pretty good pitching staff,” Mainieri said. “I think our pitching staff is going to be solid, if not spectacular at times. What we need to do is fill in the holes.”
Austin Ross, who started on Sundays in 2009 and finished with a 6-8 record, has moved up to the Saturday spot.
“I feel like I have come a long way with summer workouts and then the work I put in this past fall,” Ross said. “I worked on my off-speed stuff a good bit, and I think that has been the most improved part of my game. I know I struggled at times last season, but I feel stronger with being a year older and more experienced.”
While Daniel Bradshaw, who was 4-0 with a 3.04 ERA in 2009, was expected by many to be in the running for the Sunday spot, newcomer Joey Bourgeois out of LSU-Eunice will get the first go this opening weekend.
“Joey has really come on recently, and I think people are going to be impressed with how he attacks batters,” said catcher Micah Gibbs. “I think we have a staff deep enough to put a lot of guys in that spot, from Bradshaw to [Chris] Matulis and down the line, but I think Joey has stepped up and proven that he deserves a shot.”