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LSU's Brent Bonvillain dumps icy water on LSU coach Paul Mainieri after the game between LSU and Oklahoma in 2013 at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge. LSU won 11-1 and advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.. (Associated Press)

LSU's Brent Bonvillain dumps icy water on LSU coach Paul Mainieri after the game between LSU and Oklahoma in 2013 at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge. LSU won 11-1 and advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.. (Associated Press)

Tigers reload for title run

Last Modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 11:01 AM

By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

Last year LSU baseball set school records with 57 wins and 23 Southeastern Conference victories and got back to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

But the season wasn’t a success.

“At the end of the year, if we don’t win our last game and hold the (national championship) trophy, we’re going to be disappointed,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.

That’s just the way it is at LSU. So, beginning Friday night when the Tigers host New Orleans to open the season, LSU will play them one game at a time. There will be works in progress along the way with surprise starters and disappointing veterans.

But the overall goal never changes.

“We want to get to the College World Series and be the last team standing,” Mainieri said. “That’s never going to change.”

The season will present the usual challenges, with the Tigers, picked to win the SEC West and challenge South Carolina for the overall conference championship. The various preseason polls have them ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 9.

“I feel like we’re right where we need to be,” said Mainieri, who’s faced the added hurdle of practicing around an unusually bitter winter. “I feel like this team is starting to round into shape.

“But we can’t just pick up where we left off last year in Omaha. We play a very challenging schedule, and each game is critical in determining the direction of our season.”

The Tigers will be built around a pair of returning first-team All-Americans while trying to replace two of the top hitters in school history, Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes, and uncanny closer Chris Cotton.

“There’s no hiding the fact that we lost a lot of outstanding players from last year’s team,” Mainieri said.

But All-American right-handed starter Aaron Nola and national freshman of the year shortstop Alex Bregman are a good place to start the reloading process.

“Those two are as good as anybody,” Mainieri said.

Added Bregman, “Right after we lost that (elimination) game (in Omaha) I was ready to get back on the mission of winning the national championship.”

Nola went 12-1 last year with a 1.57 ERA, with the lone loss coming in Omaha, where he gave up only two unearned runs.

He is one of the top pitchers in college baseball and is projected as a first-round draft pick at the end of the season.

Bregman, a baseball rat addicted to the practice field, is joined by returning third baseman Christian Ibarra, who will likely hit cleanup behind Bregman in the lineup.

“They’re the key to our season offensively,” Mainieri said.

That’s the left side of the infield. The right side took a huge hit with the loss of Katz at first base and JaCoby Jones at second.

Tyler Moore and Chris Chinea are both catchers, but one will likely end up at first base, Mainieri said.

Second base is also iffy, although for now junior college transfer Conner Hale will get the first shot after moving from backup third baseman.

The projected outfield, a track team with gloves, might be the pitching staff’s best friend and is being touted as the best defensive unit in the country with speedsters Jared Foster, Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird turning doubles into outs. It’s being touted as the best defensive outfield in the country.

“I honestly think so,” said Foster, a former Barbe High quarterback/infielder who’s projected to start in right field after two seasons as a key backup. “It is like one big glove out there. People will see it once we start playing. We are really fast out there. Not a lot of balls will drop.”

The starting pitching, led by Nola, should be fine with No. 2 starter Cody Glenn also returning and the third spot a battle between junior college transfer Kyle Bouman and last year’s Louisiana High School Player Of The Year, Jared Poche.

Mainieri will spend most of the pre-conference schedule trying to sort out a depleted bullpen.

“We need to continue to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle will fit together,” Mainieri said. “We’re going to have a solid relief corps. We haven’t really made any final decisions yet, but that’s what happens when we have a lot of new guys.”

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