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Hobbs Column: Pieces in place early for Mainieri

Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 11:55 AM

By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

If Paul Mainieri has a strength as LSU’s baseball coach, it’s probably his ability to mix and match with the variances of a season until the Tigers are as good as they can possibly be.

He has a knack for it, never afraid to tinker with things on a hunch.

In 2009, famously, he tried to fix a team that wasn’t broken. The wholesale defensive changes he pulled the string on in the middle of the season looked ludicrous for a lineup that was cruising along. But that team got even better.

Maybe they would have won the national championship without the meddling. We’ll never know. We just know that, with the changes, they were clearly the best team in America when the season ended in an Omaha dog pile.

So Mainieri must feel pretty bored these days.

Baseball, more than any other sport, is always a work in progress, subject to the whims of unexplained slumps, one-game wonders, etc.

But right now, with the pre-Southeastern Conference phase of the season over, the Tigers look, position by position, just about the way Mainieri envisioned it before the season began.

That’s just not supposed to happen. By now, the original starting lineup should have been shredded, crumpled, rolled up into a papery ball and thrown against the dugout wall.

Instead the Tigers will open SEC play at Mississippi State tonight with the same lineup that opened the season a month ago against Maryland.

It must frustrate Mainieri.

“I feel about as good as I could possibly feel about our team,” he said last Sunday after sweeping Washington. “I think we have the pieces and components to give ourselves a chance in the SEC.”

But to get it right on the first try just doesn’t sound right. Granted, that could still change. The start of the conference season doesn’t mean everything is etched in granite.

But right now, the 16-1 Tigers look like a rock-solid team. There are no glaring holes. A team always wants to get better, obviously, but at the moment there’s nowhere you can point to and say this or that HAS to get better or they’re in big trouble.

Assuming Mainieri had some sort of checklist to open the season, it would seem all the question marks have been answered.

There was the left side of the infield, which lost four-year starters Tyler Hanover (third) and Austin Nola (shortstop); boldly inserting them into the lineup as freshmen was that key move for the 2009 College World Series championship team.

But it’s hard to see any difference with two newcomers, Alex Bregman at short and Christian Ibarra at third.

In fact, two true freshmen are leading the team in hitting — center fielder Mark Laird (.410) and Bregman (.391). Ibarra, a junior college transfer, is fourth at .358.

Laird, with wide receiver speed, might also be the best defensive outfielder LSU has ever seen.

Left fielder Raph Rhymes and first baseman Mason Katz are back as seniors only because the seasons they had a year ago didn’t impress the Major Leagues as much as they did opponents.

They will have trouble duplicating their junior numbers (Rhymes flirted with .500 for a ridiculous amount of time), but appear to be giving it the old college try. Rhymes is at .369, Katz at .355.

Second baseman JaCoby Jones needs to get his 235 average up. But the recovering free swinger leads the team with 16 walks, a career-high just 17 games in.

The only change Mainieri might make would turn a really good outfield into a sprint-relay team. That would mean moving Andrew Stevenson to center, Laird to right, Chris Scriambra to left and Rhymes from left to DH.

“It’s hard for balls to fall out there in that outfield,” Katz said.

LSU went with it last Sunday, but Mainieri cautioned it wasn’t really being considered.

For one thing, Rhymes didn’t have to come back after being disappointed that he was not drafted until the 20th round last year. Moving to DH wouldn’t help his draft stock any.

As is, it looks like a defense to compare with any, maybe even rivaling 2007 as easily the best in LSU history.

They even kind of halfway run the bases. Nothing fancy, you understand — that wouldn’t be LSU — but so far there haven’t been any major train wrecks or pile-ups.

On the mound, LSU expected to have as good of a 1-2 punch as anybody with starters Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades.

“I would think anybody in the country would love to have those two starters at the top,” Mainieri said of how it’s gone so far.

The original plan for a third starter— although you got the feeling Mainieri’s heart was never in it — was to use Chris Cotton unless he toiled too hard in his role as closer the first two games.

But Cody Glenn stepped up before they even had to try that — he’s 3-0 with a 0.73 ERA in the third spot.

That leaves Cotton to concentrate on closing, while Joey Bourgeois has been just as effective as a set-up man in the seventh or eighth innings.

The rest of the bullpen hasn’t been as consistent, but in the overall scheme Mainieri has to be pleased.

This looks like a team that is ready for the SEC to start.

• • •

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

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