Aaron Nola, Ryan Eades top LSU Tigers rotation

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series previewing the LSU baseball season. Today: The starting rotation.

The pitchers on this year’s LSU baseball team know how the position players on last year’s team felt.

One of the biggest challenges facing LSU going into last season was compensating for the loss of All-America outfielder Mikie Mahtook, a first-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Rays.

One of the biggest challenges facing this year’s team is compensating for the loss of top starter Kevin Gausman, a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Orioles.

“We’re going to need to piece together a lot collectively to make up for the loss of Kevin, very much like it was with Mikie,” said first baseman Mason Katz, who took the lead in replacing Mahtook’s power with a team-high 13 homers last season. “We needed a complete group effort to put it all together last year without him.”

Though the Tigers expect Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades to be top-flight No. 1 and No. 2 starters, it might be a bit unrealistic to expect them to match the productivity of Gausman, who was the first pitcher drafted last June.

Gausman was 12-2 with an era of 2.77 and struck out 135 batters in 123.2 innings. LSU won 14 of the 17 games Gausman started, including nine of 11 Southeastern Conference starts and postseason. He averaged nearly eight innings per start.

Nola will start the opener of the first two series, but it’s possible Eades could still grab the Friday night slot after that. In either case, Tigers relievers might find themselves pitching a few more innings on Fridays, which would have a trickle-down effect throughout the weekend.

“Last year, we had such a luxury with Gausman because he’d go seven or eight innings on Friday every time,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “so you really didn’t tax the bullpen.”

Still, Mainieri doesn’t expect the bullpen to be taxed a whole lot when Nola (7-4, 3.61) and Eades (5-3, 3.83) start.

“I firmly believe that in order to go to (the College World Series) and win it all, you have to have co-aces, two super-stud pitchers at a minimum,” Mainieri said. “You’ve got to have a couple of guys you give the ball to knowing they’re going to pitch deep into the game and give you a chance to win virtually every time they pitch.”

So it doesn’t matter a whole lot who starts Friday and who starts Saturday as long as they produce. Mainieri said he’d like to see Eades earn the Friday night opportunity because he’s a junior and will be a high draft choice this summer if he has a big season.

“In my opinion, our season in large part will be determined by the kind of season Ryan Eades has,” Mainieri said. “If he has that All-America-caliber season we all expect him to, then I believe we have a team that can challenge for everything.

“I believe Ryan Eades is going to have a great year. If that ends up happening, then great. If the best combination is for Nola to go Friday and Eades on Saturday, then we’ll stay with that.”

Mainieri said he’d like to see Eades have more “clean” innings, getting the side out in order with a minimum of pitches, which is one of Nola’s strong suits.

“Kevin’s a great pitcher,” Eades said. “Our goal is to go as deep into a game as we can and give our team the best chance to win, and that was Kevin’s goal.”

Nola said he focused on improving his location during the offseason even though he walked just seven batters in 89.2 innings last season.

“That’s very hard to do,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “I don’t care if you have a freshman, a senior or a big leaguer.”

But, Nola said, it’s not enough just to throw strikes.

“It’s got to be quality strikes in the SEC,” Nola said, “or you’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to make you pay for it.”

Dunn said he doesn’t want Eades or Nola trying to be Gausman.

“The thing that I want them to be is themselves,” Dunn said, “not try and do anything outside of their ability because their ability is good enough. Pitching is about commanding the strike zone, being aggressive on the mound and just going out and competing with the ability that you have.”

Mainieri hasn’t announced his Sunday starter, though he’ll likely do so Monday.

One of two senior left-handers — Chris Cotton and Brent Bonvillain — could be limited on Sunday and close on Friday, or the third starter could be junior right-hander Kurt McCune, who had that role last season before Nola emerged.

Mainieri said the Sunday role will be “an ongoing process,” so whoever starts next Sunday against Maryland isn’t guaranteed anything in SEC play or the postseason.

As for the mid-week starter, the front-runner appears to be left-hander Cody Glenn, who had that role at the start of last season, with freshman right-hander Russell Reynolds of Parkview Baptist in reserve.

But once the Tigers begin SEC play at Mississippi State on March 15, it’s likely the mid-week workload will be done by committee and be tailored according to the workload of the preceding weekend and getting everyone sharp for the following weekend.

“Once we start conference play the weekend games become most critical,” Mainieri said. “So you’re not going to save a guy back for midweek starts if he can help you win a game on the weekend. I’m really thinking of it in terms of four starters, and then when we go to Mississippi State, the three starters that give us the best chance.”

Tuesday: The bullpen.