When junior pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Austin Ross envisioned their title defense run in 2010, an up-and-down season wasn’t being drawn up in their minds.
For Ranaudo the trouble started in the opening week of the season.
His first start came against Centenary, where Ranaudo allowed just one run over five innings of work. With six strikeouts to boot, it was the stat line expected from a prospect that was being tabbed as a high first-round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft.
What the stat sheet didn’t read was that when Daniel Bradshaw replaced him in the sixth, Ranaudo wouldn’t step onto the mound again for over a month.
As he battled tenderness in his throwing elbow, the Tigers stayed on course, dropping just three games, two to Kansas and one to Arkansas, over the time Ranaudo was sidelined.
When Mainieri went to work his ace back into the lineup, he did so with a short leash.
Working against Tennessee in his first appearance since Centenary, the right-hander pitched two scoreless innings before being called to the bench.
It looked promising, but things were about to go downhill in a hurry.
Headed into Hoover for the Southeastern Conference Tournament last weekend, Ranaudo had made nine starts and had an 8.49 ERA over 35 innings of work. Opponents were hitting over .300 against the Tiger ace, and he had seen his conference ERA creep into double-digits.
The road for Austin Ross was at times just as tough.
Headed into the season penciled in as the Saturday starter, Ross was shuffled around in the weekend rotation before Mainieri decided to move him into a relief role in early April.
On May 9, in his first start since moving out of the rotation, Ross, sporting a 3-4 record, gave up a solo home run to Vanderbilt’s first batter of the game. Six innings later, Ross left the mound after giving up just two runs on five hits with no walks and five strikeouts.
Back up against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament last week, Ross tied his career-high in innings pitched with eight, where he allowed four runs on only four hits with two walks and seven strikeouts.
Mainieri called the performance “phenomenal,” which helped the decision to start Ross on Friday in the team’s Regional opener that much easier.
“Austin has pitched the most consistent ball for us,” Mainieri said.
Going into the decision were a number of factors, from giving Ranaudo the extra day’s rest down to which of the two would benefit the Tigers defensively against a small-ball approach like UC-Irvine’s.
“Anthony worked hard last weekend (in Hoover),” Mainieri said. “While he only went three innings and less than 50 pitches (Sunday), he was giving it all he had. It was a very emotional stretch for him, and the day off will help.
“I also like the fact that Austin is superior in terms of fielding the position. And this is the kind of team that will work the counts deep, and Austin will throw strikes and get ahead.”
Ranaudo, who pitched his longest outing of the season last Wednesday (7.2 innings) and worked the final three innings of Sunday’s finals, will be coming off five days rest when he takes the mound on Saturday against either UCLA or Kent State.
“I feel like both the first and second game are of equal importance,” Mainieri said. “Our goal is to win the first two games, and these guys both have what it takes. They are both back to form.”
Working in the pitchers’ favor will be the California climate, which is already proving to push LSU to a different pace than the summer heat that has fallen on Baton Rouge.
“We worked out wearing jackets during practice and it was probably around 65 degrees,” Mainieri laughed. “The climate is just so considerably different than back home, and what happens in the evenings are that the ball doesn’t carry anything like it does during the day.
“That’s part of the reason all these pitchers out here have outstanding numbers. For us, that’s okay.”