The wet and unseasonable-for-January muggy weather that plagued Baton Rouge lifted Friday morning, just in time for Paul Mainieri to host a throng of reporters for LSU’s baseball media day.
And with a No. 8 national ranking in the recently-released Baseball America national rankings, there was reason for a sunny disposition.
“What a perfect day for baseball,” head coach Paul Mainieri repeated as he worked the room where the media was gathered before heading out to the field.
But even on a gorgeous January afternoon without a cloud in the sky and the temperatures hovering in the low-60s, there was still a real threat of a dark cloud that could hang over LSU’s head as it awaits the start of the season.
“The SEC may be the best it’s ever been, quite frankly,” Mainieri told the group of assembled media at a booster lounge in Alex Box Stadium. He noted that while LSU is No. 8 in the country, it’s the fourth SEC team in the top eight. There are six SEC teams in the top 11.
Optimistic? Sure. But in the SEC, that still may involve an uphill climb.
Coming off a season where LSU missed the SEC tournament, leading to the Tigers missing the NCAA tournament, LSU fully appreciates the difficulty of navigating SEC waters. LSU went 36-20 last year, swept Cal State Fullerton out of conference, but was done in by a 13-17 SEC record including several close losses.
Three things will help LSU avoid a similar fate this year, Mainieri hopes. The first is a new conference tournament format. The SEC tournament will have a 10-team field, instead of eight. Mainieri thinks that if the Tigers had made the SEC tournament last year - they were ninth in the 12-team conference - they would have earned an at-large bid.
“Not making the SEC tournament gave them a reason not to put us in,” he said.
But there are a couple of other reasons why he is optimistic.
Mainieri said he would not trade his likely weekend pitching rotation of Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and Kurt McCune “for any in the country.”
But he hopes improvements in the bullpen - “our Achilles Heel last year,” he said - would help LSU avoid the multiple one-run losses. He said three blown ninth-inning leads in the SEC are what separated the Tigers from being out of the NCAA tourney field to winning the SEC West and contending to host a regional.
He said he hoped the trio of sophomore Nick Rumbelow, freshman Aaron Nola and junior college transfer Nick Goody are the candidates to give the Tigers an improved bullpen.
If the pen improves and the starting rotation is as good as Mainieri hopes it will be, he said an offense that led the SEC in runs and was third in batting average should be more than enough, despite the loss of star center fielder Mikie Mahtook to the draft.
He said he will tweak the offensive approach after emphasizing small ball last year.
“We didn’t pitch well enough to give away outs,” he said.
The offense returns six starters with sophomore JaCoby Jones moving not only into Mahtook’s spot in center field (Jones played second base last season), but also likely into the role as an offensive leader.
LSU opens the season Feb. 17 against Air Force in a three-game weekend series at Alex Box. After football’s disappointing finish in the BCS championship game and basketball’s continued struggle to become relevant in the SEC, Mainieri was asked if he felt added pressure to bring some good news to Tiger fans this season.
In his reply, first Manieri took exception to the characterization of the football season as disappointing. Then he questioned how one can add pressure to his already pressure-packed job.
“There are great expectations,” he said, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
And with that, the question-and-answer session wound to a close and the room emptied into the picture-perfect afternoon to a perfect field that provided the picture-perfect backdrop for a media opportunity.
Any cloud, or threat to a good season, was hard to find. But after last season, hanging in the air was a keen awareness that the weather, and fortunes, can change quickly in the SEC.