It would’ve been just fine with the LSU players and coaches had the future waited a few weeks to take over their collective consciousness.
That didn’t happen, though, as the Tigers missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.
So as painful as it might be, LSU’s groundwork for the 2012 season began last week, complete with a chip on each returning player’s shoulder.
“That’s something that’s going to motivate all of us,” said outfielder/first baseman Mason Katz, who will be one of the team’s top returning hitters after he raised his average to .337 with a strong final month. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in sports. We came here to play in the NCAA tournament and win national championships, and not getting that chance really hurts.
“But last year is over and we have to move forward and do everything in our power to not let this happen again.”
The Tigers figure to look a lot different when the 2012 season arrives, and that transformation began with the departure of pitching coach David Grewe.
Center fielder Mikie Mahtook is likely to leave — he’s projected as a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball Draft — and pitcher Tyler Jones is also expected to depart.
Juniors Austin Nola, Tyler Hanover and Matty Ott could also have decisions to make if they get drafted highly enough.
“I think they all three love being at LSU, but if the opportunity is the right opportunity, they’ll probably sign,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “If not, I think they’ll come back to school.”
The status of outfielder Trey Watkins is a little unclear. He is also draft eligible, but has struggled through two seasons, battling an elbow injury in 2010 and inconsistency in 2011 when he batted only .226. Mainieri said he thinks Watkins will get drafted and is likely to bolt.
Of the players who are likely to be back, a young pitching staff emerged as the team’s strength this spring, anchored by Kevin Gausman, Kurt McCune and Ryan Eades. Reliever Kevin Berry made a nice impact in his debut season, and freshmen Joe Broussard, Nick Rumbelow and Sam Peterson all flashed some promise as well.
The return to health and full strength by Joey Bourgeois, Jordan Rittiner and Forrest Garrett could help round out a pitching staff potentially among the best in the pitching-strong SEC.
“When we look at next year and the potential those pitchers give us, it’s really exciting to think about how good we could be,” Katz said.
Around that pitching staff, there will be a crew of veterans for Mainieri and his coaches to build with.
Besides Katz, the position players who should be back as returning starters are designated hitter Raph Rhymes, catcher Ty Ross, second baseman JaCoby Jones and utility man Alex Edward. Grant Dozar also made several starts at first base and catcher and isn’t expected to be drafted.
Of that group, Rhymes and Jones delivered strong debut seasons, hitting .360 and .338, respectively. Jones could shift to center field to replace Mahtook, and Rhymes saw limited time in the outfield. Mainieri said Ross will have to come back and win the starting catcher’s job after a sub-par offensive season.
Incoming recruits figure to plug some holes in the batting order. Mainieri said he wants to mix in some left-handed bats after spending most of this season with an all-right-handed lineup.
Whoever swings the bats next season, hitting in the clutch and more consistently is a top priority. The Tigers batted .303 as a team and led the SEC during the regular season with 388 runs. But their offense rode a roller-coaster all season, getting shut out four times in SEC play.
“We have to find a way to be more consistent offensively,” Katz said. “We had a lot of games when we scored a lot of runs and put up nice numbers, but we also got shut out four times, and we can’t let that happen.”
As valuable as Mahtook was for his considerable baseball skills, he was also vital as a leader on a young team in 2011.
Now that mantle falls on the personable Katz’s shoulders.
“I’m absolutely ready for that,” said Katz, who led the SEC during the regular season with 21 doubles and was second on the team behind Mahtook with 53 RBIs. “This team is going to need somebody to step into that role. I’ve watched Mikie and learned a lot from him. I’ll try to do the things he did as a leader. He knew how to push people and carry the team on his shoulders. Nobody is going to replace Mikie, but I think I can play a role as a leader.”
While there doesn’t figure to be a shortage of talent with another strong recruiting class on the way, another key for the Tigers will be if they mature and show the ability to win close games.
LSU went 2-7 in one-run games in the SEC, which proved to be a major difference between competing for the West Division championship and missing the league tournament and ultimately the NCAA tournament.
“At times it was the youth, at times it was that we just weren’t mentally tough enough, and I take a responsibility for that,” Mainieri said. “That’s what I get paid to do is develop the toughness of the team.
“There’s nothing we can do about how this season ended, but we can work harder than we ever have to not let it happen again,” he said.