The mission for next season’s LSU baseball team will be to take one more step than this year’s team did and reach the College World Series.
But coach Paul Mainieri’s message to his players in exit meetings following the 7-2 loss in the championship game of the Baton Rouge Super Regional last Sunday was that the final step must be preceded by a whole bunch of steps similar to the ones that put this year’s team on the cusp of returning to Omaha, Neb., after a two-year absence.
The Tigers won 42 of 56 regular-season games, going undefeated in mid-week games (14) for the first time in school history. They captured an outright Southeastern Conference regular-season title with a 19-11 league record.
After a 1-2 record in the SEC tournament, which couldn’t prevent LSU from earning a No. 7 national seeding, the Tigers swept through the Baton Rouge Regional and won the first game of the best-of-three Baton Rouge Super Regional.
That’s a lot of work to get to the point where Stony Brook won back-to-back games to abruptly end LSU’s season.
“The first thing we need to remember is that next season does not begin where this season ended,” Mainieri said. “It’s dangerous to think you just have to improve enough to win one more game because getting to where you need just one more win to get to Omaha is very difficult.”
The Tigers got to where they finished this season by compiling a 7-2 record against the three SEC teams that made it to the CWS. They swept Arkansas at home in the third SEC series of the season, grabbing first place in the West Division. A week later, they won two out of three at then-No. 1 Florida and finished the regular season by winning two out of three at two-time defending CWS champion South Carolina.
“We know we could have competed for the national championship, even though we have obvious areas in which we need to improve,” Mainieri said. “It was awful to come up a little bit short, even though we know that will provide hunger and motivation to take the next step.”
Some time before July 13, No. 1 starter Kevin Gausman (12-2) will undoubtedly sign a professional contract with the Baltimore Orioles, who made him the No. 4 pick in the Major League Baseball draft earlier this month.
Two departing seniors — shortstop Austin Nola and third baseman Tyler Hanover — were fixtures in the LSU infield dating to the Tigers’ last CWS title in 2009.
Closer Nick Goody, who was outstanding for most of the season before having a handful of subpar outings late, is expected to sign with the New York Yankees, who selected him in the sixth round.
So before the Tigers can think a whole lot about being better than they were this season, they have to figure out how to replace the key losses from this season.
Gausman was the second-highest draft choice in LSU baseball history. Mainieri said Aaron Nola, who was named a freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball, has “emerged as the favorite” ahead of Ryan Eades, who started strong but struggled late in the season, in the competition to be Gausman’s replacement.
Mainieri said Nola will have an abbreviated summer, making three starts of five innings each in the Cape Cod League. Eades will not participate in summer league play, and he and Nola will resume their throwing programs with the Tigers in August.
“Aaron Nola is capable of being a frontline starter for a quality SEC team,” Mainieri said. “We don’t want to put too much stress on his arm. We think he will be better served by competing in the best competition in the country, then taking July off.
“Ryan Eades was outstanding the first half of the season, but about the last third he struggled. He has been a bona fide weekend starter so there’s no reason to believe he can’t be again. (Pitching coach) Alan Dunn and I met with Ryan, and we all agreed that it’s best for him to take the summer off and clear his mind and come back fresh in the fall.”
Mainieri said the competition to be the third starter “is absolutely wide open.”
He said left-hander Chris Cotton, who emerged as a stalwart in the bullpen, will make a few starts in summer ball to see if he might be able to make the transition to the rotation. He is scheduled to start four times with a pitch count of 75 in each.
“We just want to explore all options,” Mainieri said. “This is a good time to see if he has the endurance and if he can be as effective.”
Kurt McCune, who was a weekend starter two years ago and began last season as the Sunday starter, could re-emerge as a candidate for a weekend spot. Joey Bourgeois could also be in the mix.
If Cotton remains in the bullpen, he’ll be a candidate to replace Goody as the closer, as will right-hander Nick Rumbelow and right-hander Joe Broussard, if he isn’t in the rotation.
Right-hander Kevin Berry and left-handers Cody Glenn, Aaron Johnson and Christian Trent also return. Mainieri said the seven pitching recruits could fill in a variety of roles. They are right-handers Will LaMarche (Chabot, Calif., Community College), Russell Reynolds (Parkview Baptist), Taylor Butler (Barbe High), Mitch Sewald (Rummel High), Hunter Newman (Atlanta Calvary Day School) and Jamie McClure (Panola Junior College/Catholic High) and left-hander Hunter Devall (Centreville Academy/Zachary High).
The infield lost its anchor with the graduation of Austin Nola, who Mainieri said is the best defensive shortstop he’s ever coached.
One of the keys to the infield will be where versatile incoming freshman Alex Bregman settles in. He’ll get a first look at shortstop but can also play second, third and catcher. It seems unlikely Bregman will turn pro after lasting until the 29th round before the Boston Red Sox selected him.
Mainieri said Christian Ibarra, a recruit from a California junior college, is the closest to Nola defensively and could win the shortstop job if Mainieri chooses to use Bregman’s bat elsewhere. Casey Yocom, a backup infielder this season, is also in the mix.
The competition to replace Hanover at third could get crowded. Tyler Moore, who often started at first base as a freshman late this season, will get a look there. Mason Katz, who played mostly at first base and occasionally in the outfield, will play third base during the summer. Recruit Geonte Jackson (Houston Christian) is also a candidate as is sophomore Evan Powell, who will also get a look at first.
The second base job presumably will remain in the hands of junior to be JaCoby Jones, who Mainieri said was “outstanding’ defensively “but we need him to hit better.”
Chris Chinea of Gulliver High in Miami is a power-hitting catcher who might wind up playing first base because of the presence of Ty Ross, who Mainieri said might have been the most improved player in the SEC last season, behind the plate.
“I expect Ty to be even better,” Mainieri said. “He has a chance to be one of the better catchers in the SEC.”
Moore and Chinea will provide depth behind Ross, and Mainieri said “there’s a chance” LSU will sign another catcher.
After Raph Rhymes broke the school record for batting average, Mainieri said “it’s a pretty safe assumption Raph will be our everyday left fielder.”
Mainieri said the competition for the other two outfield positions “might be the most competitive” one on the team.
“We need to get more athletic in the outfield,” Mainieri said. “We need more speed.”
Chris Sciambra, who had earned the starting center field job and leadoff position in the order as a freshman, is expected to make a full recovery from a fractured vertebrae in his neck that sidelined him at mid-season.
The Tigers recruited two left-handed hitting outfielders — Andrew Stevenson of St. Thomas Moore and Sean McMullen of Delgado Community College — who Mainieri said have a chance to compete for starting positions. Another outfield recruit is Chase Rivett of East Ascension, and sophomore to be Jared Foster remains in the mix.
Mainieri said Arby Fields, who eventually became the starting center fielder after Sciambra’s injury and struggled, has been given an opportunity to return but in a diminished role.
Fields, who is scheduled to play summer ball with Santa Barbara in the California Collegiate League, indicated he might be moving on in a tweet after his exit meeting with Mainieri.
Mainieri said he chose not to renew the scholarship of freshman RHP Carson Baranik, who was suspended for three weeks after being arrested on suspicion of DUI shortly before the season started. … Freshman LHP Braden Strickland has decided to transfer to a junior college in search of more playing time. … OF Jackson Slaid is also transferring in search of more playing time. … LHP Brent Bonvillain is scheduled to participate in a summer league in Houma, and OF Alex Edward will play somewhere in the area after taking a few weeks to get 100 percent healthy after being hampered by a hamstring strain for much of the season. … Mainieri said his entire coaching staff will return intact.
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