Two weeks have passed since LSU completed fall practice, and Thursday morning, coach Paul Mainieri spent time with The Advocate reviewing what he learned about the team.
Entering his 14th season at LSU, Mainieri must replace the majority of the lineup. The Tigers lost five starters from last year’s team, which finished 40-26 and lost to Florida State in an NCAA super regional.
Though LSU must rebuild its lineup, the pitching staff gives Mainieri confidence as he tries to reach the College World Series for the first time in two years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did you learn about your team during fall practice?
We were very fortunate (with weather) this year, which allowed our team to get into a rhythm of practice, especially with 10 new position players. They got into a routine of knowing how to go through a practice day to help make themselves better, and I think that was really great.
We made it through the entire fall practice without a single pitcher saying, "I'm sore. I can't throw." I give an awful lot of the credit to (pitching coach Alan Dunn) for adjusting what he was doing with the guys and also a great deal of credit goes to Cory Couture, our athletic trainer, who monitored just how many throws a guy was making every day.
I thought they all threw great. Their velocities were up. Everybody looked good. We had a couple bad days when we were trying to work on some things, but for the most part, the top 10 pitchers on our staff looked pretty good. That's not even including Jaden Hill and Nick Storz.
Jaden looked great at the end. He had thrown several bullpens, and then his one inning looked good. Nick Storz has continued to throw bullpens, and I think he's going to be ready to pitch competitively when we start our intrasquad games in the spring.
You feel pretty good about that pitching staff, and you hope they'll be the leaders of our team this year.
During Game 1 of the Purple-Gold World Series, a pair of intrasquad scrimmages marking the end of fall practice, LSU’s pitchers held their offensive teammates to one run on four hits.
How much did junior-college transfer Zack Mathis emerge as a possible everyday player?
He was without question the highlight of the fall, position player-wise, for us.
He's much better defensively than I had anticipated him being. I knew he took a lot of pride in his hitting. When I saw him defensively, to see the skills he possesses — he's got good hands and a strong, accurate throwing arm. He's got very good first step quickness. He's a good infielder.
Primarily we played him at third this fall, but he came here as a shortstop. He could play shortstop for us. He could play second. He could play any of those three positions and do a good job for us. And he can hit.
Mathis was the most consistent all fall of giving you a real high-quality at-bat every time he went up there. It doesn't mean he got a hit every time. It doesn't mean he didn't strike out. But man, he gets in the batter's box, and if you're a pitcher going against him, you're going to have to make some good pitches to get him out.
Daniel Cabrera has spent the majority of fall practice sidelined by a quad strain, but as LSU played an exhibition against Nicholls on Sunday, Cabrera resembled the player LSU needs him to be next spring.
When y'all start preseason practice in January, what are going to be the first things you look for?
One disappointing thing this fall was (freshman infielder) Zach Arnold getting hurt the third day of fall practice. He broke a rib … He couldn't do anything the whole fall except for play two scrimmages at the very beginning. He had four weeks of individual workouts, and during that time, he showcased enough to say, "Hey, this kid's got something going for him."
So I'm anxious to see him back out there playing every day in the three weeks leading up to the season. He'll be behind the other guys because he didn't have the benefit of fall practice.
I'm anxious to see how much improvement some of the freshmen made from fall ball to spring, specifically guys like Mitchell Sanford and Wes Toups. Both of them have displayed some very good skills. But they had a lot to learn as far as their mental approach to the game and displaying a toughness to be able to play every day and learning the nuances we're trying to teach them.
It will be interesting to see how much improvement they make, even though we aren't actually practicing for a two-month period.
The other thing is when (Maurice) Hampton comes out, to see what he brings to the team. He didn't play all fall because of football, of course. Now to jump in there facing 90 mph plus, let's see how he can handle it.
When LSU scrimmaged another team for the first time this fall, Gavin Dugas continued showing his offseason improvement. Also, pitchers Landon Marceaux and Cole Henry made significant changes this summer.
Openings surround the lineup, but does the pitching staff give you confidence? It seems like you feel good about this group.
We have not pitched well the last two years. Since Alan has been here, the first six years, we were a dominant pitching staff. The last two years, we haven't pitched well. Let's be honest.
Typically, our team ERA is low 3.00s or even in the 2.00s. The last two years, it's been over 4.00. And we haven't gone to Omaha in two years. I think there's a correlation there.
What we need to do is go back to being the dominating pitching staff that we've been in past years. That's what leads the way.
We've got to figure out what roles to put those pitchers in, and that's something Alan and I are going to have to figure out. We did lose (Zack) Hess. We did lose Todd Peterson. We lost two power arms out of the bullpen. When you think about the power arms in the bullpen, you don't really see them in the returning players except for (Devin) Fontenot, maybe.
You always feel like you have five good candidates to be starting pitchers: (Cole) Henry, (AJ) Labas, (Landon) Marceaux, Hill and (Eric) Walker. I think it's not only what's the best starting rotation. Which of those guys can flip into the bullpen and become dudes for us at critical times? That might be a very pivotal decision we have to make.
There's no use pitching great for six or seven innings and then blow the game at the end. You've got to have the arms that can close out the game and the hardest outs to get in a game are the last three outs in the ninth inning. You've got to make sure you're strong at the end of the game.