Paul Mainieri leaned back in his chair, reflecting on Sunday’s six-hour bus ride back to Baton Rouge during which he was still wound tight and unable to sleep.
He scrolled through other teams’ schedules before teaming with hitting coach Andy Cannizaro to calculate the number of first-round arms the Tigers will face in their next few Southeastern Conference series, including a showdown with Vanderbilt starting Thursday.
Mainieri creates a caveat within his steadfast “next game up” philosophy — he’s allowed to look ahead and, sometimes, to the past.
Players are prohibited from such malfeasance, so Mainieri assured they’re all prepared for Tuesday’s 6:30 p.m. game against Southern in Alex Box Stadium, but the 10th-year coach used the bus ride to recollect on his team’s 4-5 Southeastern Conference start that featured back-to-back road series for just the fourth time in Mainieri’s tenure.
“I feel like we’re like one game behind schedule on where I’d feel really good about us,” Mainieri said. “If we were 5-4, I wouldn’t be all that disappointed, knowing we had such a young team still a long ways to go. That doesn’t mean anything as we go forward.
“We’ve got tremendous challenges ahead of us. I wish we were in first place, wish we were ranked first in the country, so I’m not satisfied, obviously. But I’m real satisfied our kids hung in there this weekend after losing the first game with Alex Lange pitching and found a way to win the next two games.”
The two games were won with power and precisely timed offense, reversing an alarming four-game trend that preceded it when LSU scored six runs in 24 innings. The damage came at the expense of a depleted Auburn pitching staff, but progress was palpable and some lineup tinkering found suitable spots for power bats Jordan Romero and Greg Deichmann in the middle of the order.
After “seizing the moment” when called upon in the fourth inning of the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Romero finds himself jockeying for everyday playing time. He’ll likely be in Tuesday’s lineup, Mainieri said — one that’s still not concrete despite the offensive outbursts.
“These are young kids; these are not guys that have 10 years of sample size in the big leagues,” Mainieri said. “With the emotions they have, confidence fluctuates and certain things are exposed; certain things rise up. I think it’s just not the right thing to do to stick your feet in cement and say, ‘That’s the way we’re going to do things.’ Keep tinkering a little bit here and there, but the basic foundation of your team is still there.”
While the Tigers seem to be curing their ills, Southern’s continue to snowball. The Jaguars took a lead or were tied going into the seventh inning in each of their three losses against Texas Southern last weekend, but continued bullpen ineffectiveness and defensive lapses crippled any chance of a series win.
Southern has now lost three games it led entering the seventh, one it led entering the eighth and two others that were tied going into the seventh.
Coach Roger Cador envisioned such issues when he purged the roster in the preseason — dismissing seven players amid NCAA sanctions and bringing in 22 newcomers to a team that just last year reached the SWAC tournament title game and took LSU to extra innings before falling 4-2 at Lee-Hines Field.
“It’s going to take a lot of patience through a lot of mistakes,” Cador said. “It’s going to take a lot of positive reinforcement from the coaching staff to help the kids fight through it, because sometimes I don’t think they realize the type of odds they are fighting.
“I knew there would be growing pains, and I’m willing to accept what is going on. My thing is to keep the young kids with their heads up because they’re not that far from winning a bunch of these games.”
Cador will start right-hander Harold Myles on Tuesday, while LSU counters with Jesse Stallings, who will only pitch an inning as part of a hodgepodge of relievers.
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome