Two weeks removed from a super regional loss to Coastal Carolina and just after he reaffirmed his commmitment to LSU following inquiries from Texas, coach Paul Mainieri sat down for a 45-minute postseason Q&A to assess the season and program.
Buoyed by a torrid May where they lost just three games, the Tigers — which replaced eight of nine position players from 2015 — finished 45-21, garnered a national seed for the fifth straight season and were two wins away from another College World Series berth.
Given what you lost from last season, do you think you guys overachieved this season?
“Overachieve, underachieve, those are terms that are thrown around very loosely. Does a team ranked preseason No. 1 in the country underachieve if they don’t win the national championship? I’ve been accused of having teams that underachieved. Our 2009 team was preseason No. 1 and we won the national championship, so do people say they did what we expected them to do? It’s hard to win a national championship and if you fall short of that, people think you underachieved. I think that’s inherently unfair to make that judgement. If I say we overachieved this year, that’s kind of a knock on the talent level of our players, so I don’t think I want to answer that question because I don’t think it’s a fair way to judge. I think we had very talented players. Are they as talented as some of the teams we had in the past? Maybe or maybe not in some areas, but I do think one variable about our team this year that nobody can argue was there was a high level of inexperience going into the season. Whenever you have a team that’s inexperienced — I don’t like to use the term ‘young’ because sometimes they’re not freshmen. Greg Deichmann and (Cole) Freeman, the Jordan boys, (Mike) Papierski, (Jordan) Romero, they’ve never played on a regular basis at LSU and some of them just played sporadically as freshmen last year. You may not call Freeman or Romero young because they’re junior college transfers, but any time you come to LSU it’s a totally different experience for a baseball player than it is anywhere else. The pressure’s so much greater, the spotlight’s so much brighter. It has to be a period of adjustment, I don’t care how old you are. It’s like a Major League player that’s played his whole career for the Twins then goes to Yankee Stadium to play for the Yankees. It’s an adjustment. If you look at it just from a standpoint of inexperience, let’s just say this, I’m really proud of what we did accomplish. I don’t think many people would predict we’d win 45 games or be a national seed or host a super regional. On the other hand, this is LSU and our standards never get lowered. We don’t believe in ‘Oh, it’s a rebuilding year.’ I was concerned going in because I made no bones about it that in 2015 we rolled the dice and went for it. I could have not played Jared Foster every day at second base, not played Chris Sciambra as the DH — I could have broken in some younger guys. But I thought that gave us the best chance to get to Omaha and win a national championship, knowing full well I’d have to pay the piper the following year with inexperienced players. You start the year with all these guys and, look, we had to make some moves pretty quickly. Shortstop situation, the third base situation, Romero emerged and at least shared the catching situation. We had some fluidity with some roles on the pitching staff, we didn’t go into the year with the idea that Hunter Newman was going to be the closer. So there were a lot of things that happened throughout the year and ultimately it was a pretty solid year and I’m proud of that. With that said, our standards at LSU among our fanbase, among the media, among the players, among the coaching staff, among the administration is we want to go to Omaha and we came up short of that goal.”
Up until the Arkansas series when you guys rattled off the hot May, was consistency the problem at the beginning of the season?
“Up until that point (the Arkansas series), it was three steps forward or two steps forward and one step back. We had some really rough losses. Part of that was because so many of the teams that we played in the middle of the week had some of their best teams in years. It seemed like every team we played was senior dominated or real experienced. We lost four midweek games and that’s really not that many when you think about it — 4 of 14. We had some really good wins in the middle of the week — we beat Louisiana Tech who was in the tournament, beat ULL who was in the tournament and on down the line. But we lost four. We always felt since the roster limits were imposed during the 2008-09 school year, everyone predicted that it would enhance the mid-major programs. Yet in the last three years, we’ve gone like 59-4 in the midweek games. I think you’re seeing those roster limits for everybody, but they’ve greatly affected the traditional powers. A lot of the kids who used to come to LSU and wait their turn to play are now going to mid-major schools and are getting a chance to play right away. You’re starting to see that rule take foothold and why all these other teams are capable of beating everyone on a given day. I think part of the reason there was “inconsistency” is because we played some really good teams, as evidenced by our strength of schedule. It’s hard to win games. Some nights you’re using your midweek pitching and they could have a bad night.”
Speaking of midweek pitching, you guys again went Johnny Wholestaff in the midweek and didn’t establish a fourth starter. Do you prefer handling midweeks that way?
“I don’t like it. I’d rather have four solid starters, but if you think about how hard it is for Major League teams to come up with a five-man rotation and you think about how many pitchers they have in their organization to choose from and they can make trades and everything else. We have 17 or 18 pitchers on our staff of which we’re trying to develop four starting pitchers. That’s after injuries, after players not performing at a level you expect them too and knowing you’ve got a weekend series that looms that’s enormously important in your season. You hate to use your fourth-best pitcher to start a midweek game when you need him on the weekend. Look at Florida. Dane Dunning, a first-round pick. He was a midweek starting pitcher through the first four weeks of the season but as soon as they got into SEC play, he went to the bullpen. That’s a first round pick. What a luxury. So what do they do? They replace him with another midweek starter, but not everybody has that deep of a pitching staff, that can go that deep with that quality. A lot of people think Florida had the best pitching staff that’s been put together in the last 10 years or more in college baseball. Sometimes we do Johnny Wholestaff by design because we want players to get work, to keep them sharp. Sometimes we do it out of necessity.”
Before the season, you expected the pitching to carry the team while the offense came around. It was the other way around. Was that surprising?
“I saw our hitting improving as fall practice went on. I think (hitting coach) Andy Cannizaro did a phenomenal job of nurturing those hitters along. From the beginning of fall to the end of fall practice last year, you could see their development. So, I wasn’t surprised that we started the season swinging the bats pretty well. What was surprising to me was the inconsistency of our pitching right off the bat. Most of the guys that were inconsistent were veteran pitchers. Alex Lange’s inconsistencies at the beginning of the year were very well chronicled and legitimately so. Everyone expects Alex to be perfect because he has the best arm, the best curveball and he went 12-0 as a freshman. I told everyone before the season begins that he might be a better pitcher but not have the same numbers or as good a numbers as he did his freshman year. And he was better in some ways. His changeup was better, he was experienced and he pitched out of a lot of jams throughout the course of the year. But a lot of the jams he got into were of his own doing. Really, even at the end of the season in the loss to Coastal Carolina, we get a 4-2 lead going into the sixth inning with Alex and his pitch count is pretty good, you’re hoping he can take you to the finish line. And, really, his undoing was walking the leadoff hitter of that inning and it allowed that rally to happen. They scratched one across and, all of a sudden, it’s a one-run game and they’re a more confident team. But Alex early in the year struggled with his command then reached a point where he turned it on and he was really outstanding. Jared (Poche) was a little up and down at times. But the inconsistencies that bothered me the most were coming out of our bullpen with Parker Bugg, Jesse Stallings, Austin Bain. And then I thought when (Alden) Cartwright went down with injury, I thought that really affected us a lot. It didn’t get much play in the media, but Alden was such a reliable guy because he was so versatile. He could give you one batter or three innings and you knew what you were going to get out of Alden. He was consistent, he wasn’t the most talented pitcher we had, but he was consistent. When we lost him, I thought it affected us. But then as time went on, Parker Bugg’s command got much better which allowed him to use his slider as an out pitch. Stallings evolved, Bain had his moments, but the key out of our bullpen was Hunter Newman. Hunter Newman moved into that closer’s role and he was just phenomenal for us down the stretch. We won a lot of one-run games and he was a big part of those one-run wins.”
Your aggressive baserunning philosophy was tested a few times this season with a young, speedy team. How would you evaluate the baserunning and Nolan Cain’s first season as third base coach?
“(Aggressive baserunning) isn’t unique to Paul Mainieri. Turn on the College World Series games, how many guys have been thrown out at the plate or trying to take an extra base in these World Series games? It happens to everybody … If you’re going to be aggressive, then sometimes the guy is going to be thrown out. You can’t play it close to the vest and make things happen. You have to be willing to take the good with the bad. Sometimes it’s not smart. You don’t want to get a runner thrown out at the plate with no outs, you don’t want to get a runner thrown out at third base with two outs. Those are not smart plays and, listen, there are some things about our baserunning that really need to improve. (In the 4-3, season-ending loss to Coastal Carolina), Cole Freeman’s tagging up on a ball that’s hit off the wall. And he knows better than that because there’s one out on the scoreboard. Even if he makes the catch, you’re only getting to third base with two outs. My philosophy is you’re just as good at second base as you are at third base with two outs. So Cole should have been off the bag and the priority in his mind should have been to score if the ball’s not caught. If the ball is caught, whether he can get to third base tagging up or not is not that important. He had the priorities backwards. And so we have to hold him at third, he ends up not scoring, and that run could have made a difference in the ballgame. Cole knew he messed up at the moment he did it. But when a player is in his first year of doing it in this environment here, you can work on it at practice all you want, but all of a sudden with the bright lights on and it happens that quick, sometimes their judgements aren’t as good as you want them to be. These are things we have to keep working on. That’s not Nolan Cain’s fault. When he sends a guy because the circumstances of the game call for him to send the guy and be aggressive and the guy gets thrown out, sometimes you tip your cap to the other team that made a great play … That’s the life of a third base coach. You have to know what you believe in — and what you believe in is what the head coach believes in — and you’ve got to stick to your guns. You’re going to be criticized. There were a lot of plays this year where no one gave credit to Nolan Cain because the man scored. But it was courageous and it was sticking to the plan that allowed us to get runs during the critical times in the year. But most fans just looked at it and said ‘Oh, so we scored the run.’ They didn’t look at the decision that had to be made, they only wanted to look at the decisions that didn’t work. And believe me, they were far outnumbered by the ones that did work. In 66 games that we played this year, there were maybe two decisions that Nolan Cain made that, given another chance to make the decision, he should have done the opposite. And we talked about them. The other ones, he did what I would have done and what anybody who knows the game would have done. You just have to tip your hat to the other team that they made the play.”
Looking at how the postseason has played out thus far, does it illustrate how hard it is to win in college baseball today?
“Without question. That’s not making excuses, just look around and see. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss went two and out in the regionals they hosted. South Carolina loses a super regional at home, Texas A&M loses a super regional at home, Mississippi State loses a super regional at home, we lose a super regional at home, Louisville loses a super regional at home. Louisville was supposed to be up there with (No. 1 overall national seed) Florida. Miami goes two and out in the College World Series. Look around, it’s obvious that the parity is greater than it’s ever been, but it was very predictable. The bat changes and the roster limits. It’s that simple. It’s not making excuses, it’s just reality. You take a player like Jameson Fisher. In the old days, Jameson Fisher would have been at LSU without question. But with the limit on the rosters and the limits on the number of guys you can have on scholarship, we didn’t think he was the caliber of catcher we could bring in. So he takes advantage of an opportunity at Southeastern and he goes there and has a phenomenal career. And good for him, happy for him. But in the old days, a player like that would have been at LSU. It’s just the reality of the world we deal with. That’s why there’s only one team that’s had a national seed for five straight years, nobody else has been a national seed for more than three years consecutively. It’s why 44 percent of the national seeds make it to Omaha through the course of this new system. It’s why the No. 1 overall seed hasn’t won since 1999. This is just reality. It’s probably good for the sport as a whole, nationwide. But it just makes it harder for the traditional powers where their fanbases expect them to win a national championship every year. But I think we’re doing OK. We’re right there every year, competing for it. But it’s like I’ve said a gazillion times if I’ve said it once — not only do you have to be good, but you have to be good at the right time on a given weekend. And you have to have some good fortune as well.”