Mainieri: Optimism for Tigers' chances this season well-placed

By By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

The long-term goal never really changes for LSU baseball.

“Every year you roll out of bed at LSU, the goal is to go to Omaha and win when you get there,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I don’t like standing up here and knowing that we haven’t been to Omaha in three years.”

There’s a 2-year-old stadium in Omaha for the College World Series that the college baseball’s most dominant team over the last 20 years has never played in.

That, Mainieri said, is unacceptable.

“Everyone who follows this program know the goal (Omaha). Anything short of that ends up being disappointing.”

LSU has been varying degrees of disappointing since winning the 2009 national championship, including last year when the Tigers won the Southeastern Conference regular season title, but were denied an Omaha trip when heavy underdog Stony Brook took two of three in the super regional in Baton Rouge.

“I believe every year is the year and this year is no different,” Mainieri said. “I think my optimism is very well placed.”

The Tigers open the season Friday in Alex Box Stadium with a three-game series against Maryland.

Arkansas was picked by the coaches to win the SEC this year, but the different national polls have the Tigers anywhere from No. 3 to No. 10 in the preseason rankings.

“There is no question in my mind we’ll be right in the fight,” Mainieri said. “The talent is there, the attitude is there and this is a very close-knit team. It’s a good combination of experience and youthfulness.”

In first baseman Mason Katz and outfielder Raph Rhymes, the Tigers will benefit from the type players who don’t normally stick around for the senior seasons.

But neither was drafted very following last season, even though Rhymes led the nation in hitting (.431) after flirting with .500 much of the season as the SEC’s player of the year and Katz was second in the SEC with 13 home runs.

They’ll be joined in the middle of the Tigers’ batting order by freshman shortstop Alex Bregman.

“Those guys ... are going to give us an outstanding heart of the order, maybe the best we’ve had in a few years,” Mainieri said. “I’m excited about that. I’m excited about the rest of the order.

“I think this year’s team is going to be more balanced. I thought last year’s team had some really exceptional players, but we had two or three spots in our order that were not at the level we would have liked. I think this year’s lineup has a much better chance to be solid one through nine.”

The best case scenario would be for Katz and Rhymes to at least approach their dream seasons of a year ago, coupled with a bounce-back year for talented junior second baseman JaCoby Jones and for catcher Ty Ross to build on the hot finish to his season.

The newcomers will take over the left side of the infield, which hadn’t had a change in four years under the watchful eye of Austin Nola at shortstop and Tyler Hanover at third base.

Most of the preseason buzz has been around shortstop Alex Bregman, a true freshman from Albuquerque, N.M.. who hit .678 in high school.

“I’m putting a lot on this kid’s shoulders,” Mainieri said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind he can handle it.

“Right from the get-go he’s going to be a very vital player in our attack. He will bat in the three-hole and start at shortstop as a freshman. That’s a lot but I think this kid can handle it.

“I love his enthusiasm, I love his athleticism.”

The LSU pitching staff lost ace Kevin Gausman, the No. 4 overall pick in last summer’s draft, but has two veteran starters back. The No. 3 starting spot behind sophomore Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades could be a work in progress.

Mainieri has never been afraid to experiment or juggle his lineups and rotations. For the moment, he plans to have lefthander Chris Cotton ready for relief closer duty on Friday night games and, if he doesn’t pitch too much or at all to start a series, come back as the Sunday starter,

But a deep staff gives him a lot of options, with veterans such as Kurt McCune, Brent Bonvillain, Nick Rumbelow, Kevin Berry and Joe Broussard.

“The depth and two top-notch starters gives us a real chances,” Mainieri said.