In a little more than a month, the LSU baseball team begins the 2015 season with its usual lofty expectations.
The Tigers were ranked No. 4 in at least one major preseason poll, and this summer they welcomed a signing class that many outlets named the best in the nation.
Coach Paul Mainieri, entering his ninth season as coach, sat down with The Advocate for a two-part Q&A.
In Part 1, the coach looked back at a season last year that ended with a disappointing loss in a home regional. He then turned to 2015. He’ll have to replace former ace Aaron Nola, and he might have a full freshman weekend rotation.
In Part 2, set to be published Monday, Mainieri touches on the third base position, where sophomore Danny Zardon is expected to replace Christian Ibarra, and he discusses how interconnected spots are at first base, second base, catcher and designated hitter.
The Advocate: Years from now, when someone asks you to describe the 2014 season, what will you say?
Mainieri: It’s really like every season except for 2009. I’ve been coaching for 32 years and one time I got to hold the trophy up after winning the last game of the year. Whenever you don’t hold the trophy up, the season ends at a disappointment.
I always say how lucky football coaches are. The TCU coach can be so disappointed that they don’t make the playoffs, but that also means that got to end their season with a win. Had they made the playoffs, it’s quite possible they would have ended their season with a loss and all anybody wants to talk about is how they lost the last game of the year.
What is there, 38 bowl games? Thirty-eight coaches get to finish the season happy with the win. Where as in baseball, one coach, one school, one group of players gets to finish the season fulfilled, totally content with the way the season went.
It’s kind of sad in some regards because it diminishes all of the great accomplishments, all of the great things that happened through the course of the year because all anybody ever wants to talk about is the very last thing that happened. If you don’t win that last game of the year, not only did you lose the last game, but you’ve lost two games in a double-elimination format in the last weekend of the year.
This is why I’ve always said you have to have the talent and you have to be really good, but you also have to be really good at the right time because if you’re bad one weekend it ends up ending your season but you also have to have some luck as well. Anybody who doesn’t believe there has to be a little bit of luck just doesn’t understand.
It doesn’t matter how good your are — you’ve got to have some breaks too.
I’m not taking anything away from Houston — they beat us fair and square. But in the eighth inning when they scored four runs against us, they really didn’t hit any balls hard. The balls just seemed very fortuitous in where they were hit. They tried to bunt, and (they)guy chops one off the end of the bat. We have a strange call. Been coaching for 30-something years and never seen obstruction called on a pitcher trying to field a ball before. Kind of changed the complexion of the inning.
And then (Alex) Bregman hits a ball in the 10th inning … looks like it’s going to be gone, certainly a leadoff double for us to win right there and the guy makes a miraculous catch.
The next night, of course, was just a terrible night in every respect, but we should have won the game and the tournament the first night. I’m forever going to think we’re going to play Texas in a super regional, how epic that would have been in Alex Box Stadium with a chance to go to Omaha, but those things didn’t happen because the season ended the way that it did.
You can’t sit here and say that there aren’t some regrets because there are. You feel like the season ended sooner than it should have. We were good enough to go to Omaha. Unfortunately, whether it was bad breaks or whatever you want to say the reason way, it just didn’t happen. But, again, you could say that about every season you ever have unless you get to win the last game of the year.
At the end of the day, we have a wonderful group of young men that played like crazy all year. We won the SEC tournament for the second year in a row, right on the fringe of winning the SEC West. If not for a tied game or a rainout, probably would have won the SEC West or ended in a tie. National seed for the third year in a row. Averaged 50 wins a year over the last three years, which is more than anybody else in the country has done.
I’m proud of what we’re doing, proud of the fact we’re right there fighting for championships every year. But to win that last game is the ultimate goal and we didn’t do that last year.
The Advocate: Have you accepted the fact that this might be the final season for some of your talented juniors?
Mainieri: You know, it’s kind of a new phenomena in football and, really, relatively so in basketball as well. Yet, in baseball, we’ve been dealing with this forever. This is not anything new for us. You really don’t expect only to have your best players for three years. You pretty much plan that way ahead.
So, yeah, I’m expecting to lose (Alex) Bregman, (Mark) Laird, Andrew (Stevenson) and (Chris) Chinea.
Honestly, if they all have a phenomenal year this year, their best year, it’s going to mean that we’re going to win a lot of games. When the time comes that I have to say good-bye to them, I’ll say so with a heavy heart and not upset we’re losing them. I’ll be grateful that we would have coached them for three years.
Alex Bregman, for all intents and purposes, was never going to come to college except for, again, some luck from our standpoint. He had that injury that kept him from playing his senior year of high school and probably kept him out of the first round of the draft, which meant he came to school.
He’s going to leave here as a first-rounder with a boat load of experiences that he will cherish for the rest of his life. I’m expecting I’ll lose those four underclassmen, and hopefully they’ll have their best years of their time here.
The Advocate: No Aaron Nola this year. Who do you give the ball to on Friday nights?
Mainieri: It’s going to be a big adjustment because, really, for the last three years we’ve had that Friday night starter — if you include Kevin Gausman — we knew we could count on, and he was going to give us a really good chance to win on Friday night. It’s going to be a big adjustment for us.
I think we’ve got somebody in our staff that’s potentially as good as Kevin Gausman or Aaron Nola. I just don’t know who it is yet. Until you give them the opportunity to go out there and pitch and be under the bright lights and learn from their failures … People forget Kevin Gausman was 5-6 his freshman year. People also forget that Aaron Nola’s first SEC game he gave up five runs in the first inning against Mississippi State. There’s a growing phase kids have to go through. You look for those qualities you think that eventually are going to allow that player to become the top of the heap kind of guy.
We’ve got candidates. I’m not hiding any names here. You know who these freshmen are: Alex Lange, Jake Godfrey, Jake Latz, Doug Norman. All four of them, I think, are very capable of being that type of guy. Time will tell if they fulfill that potential, I think, they each have.
But it’s going to be a big adjustment. The one thing that I’ll say is the last two years we’ve kind of struggled with our second and third starters. I’m hoping the depth we’ve created with these freshmen will make a strong (No. 2 and No. 3).
Last year, we didn’t struggle with a second starter. We struggled with a third starter. The year before, we struggled a little bit with the second and the third starters, even though we won the SEC and went to Omaha. It was a little bit of a struggle at times. I’m hoping maybe our consistency and the depth of our rotation will be a little better as we go forward.
The Advocate: So where does the weekend rotation stand in your mind about two weeks out from the first full-squad practice?
Mainieri: There’s no question in my mind that those four freshmen that I mentioned are going to be right in the thick of things. Obviously, Jared Poché is an established weekend starter for us. Kyle Bouman did some good things. There’s six names right there that I think are candidates for the weekend starters job.
We’re going to find good starting pitchers out of that group of six. What I think is going to be the most critical thing is to develop a closer out of that group.
Now, none of those six guys will probably get a chance to close in the first three weeks because I think it’s important for those freshmen to get innings of experience. They need to go out there and pitch and not think that any one pitch is going to cost their team a game. It’s going to allow them to use their repertoire of pitches and that type of thing. My goal, really, is to get each of those four freshmen 15-20 innings under their belt in the first three weeks.
After three weeks, when those guys have all pitched extended outings, and the Russell Reynolds and the Parker Buggs and the Hunter Devalls and the Alden Cartwrights … all of those veteran guys, they’re going to be counted on to try to close the games early in the year. They’re going to get an opportunity to do that. But if I’m not comfortable after three weeks with how we’re pitching at the end of the game, I might have to move a talented pitcher that could potentially be a really good starting pitcher, may have to move that particular guy to the end of the games. In this league, if you don’t get those last outs of the game, holding a one-run lead, it’s going to affect your season in a negative way.
That was a lesson we learned back in 2011, when we lost nine games by either one or two runs. We weren’t really able to close out the games and that’s what hurt us.