Q&A with LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri (Part I)

Paul Mainieri begins his eighth season as LSU’s baseball coach this year.

The 56-year-old sat down with The Advocate for an hour-long interview earlier this week.

In Part I of a two-part Q&A, Mainieri looks back on last season, turns to the expectations of this year and provides insight into the starting pitching rotation. Preseason practice begins Friday.

On Monday, The Advocate will run Part II of the Q&A, in which Mainieri discusses the intense battle at the catcher position, his batting lineup and replacing voids in the right field of the infield.

THE ADVOCATE: Your Tigers finished 57-11 last season and were, for most stretches, the nation’s No. 1 ranked team. However, y’all went 0-2 in Omaha at the College World Series. Describe the 2013 year.

MAINIERI: Obviously if you don’t win the last game of the year at LSU, then it’s a disappointing ending to the season. That’s just our standard. But what people don’t realize is that in the illustrious history of LSU baseball, especially over the last 30 years — which has been good or better than anybody in the country — we’ve only won six times. We’ve only won the last game of the year six times.

So percentage-wise, you know you’re probably going to end the season disappointed — and that’s the cruel thing about it, you know, because I thought last year right up until those last two games in Omaha really was a season for the ages. Had we finished the job and won five straight in Omaha … just think about that. We would have finished 62-9. That might have gone down in history as the greatest season in the history of college baseball by any team. But of course, it didn’t happen.

Fifty-seven wins was still the LSU and SEC record for wins in a season. We won four championships: We SEC West, we won the SEC Tournament, we won a regional, we won a super regional. We had single-digit losses going to Omaha.

In some ways, I think it was similar to the 2011 football season, when they had just an unbelievable run to 13-0 but had the disappointing ending.

ADVOCATE: How much does going 0-2 in Omaha last year keep you from sleeping?

MAINIERI: This is my 32nd year as a college coach, OK? I think we’ve won almost 1,200 games in our career. I remember the losses more than the wins.

I keep thinking about the UCLA game (the CWS opener), and had we won that game, I honestly felt we would have made it to the finals and would have loved to have faced Mississippi State in the finals. I would have liked our chances, but it didn’t happen. I think back to the loss to Stony Brook that kept us from going (to the CWS in 2012). I could rattle off 50 losses in our career that still stick with me.

So when you ask me about last year, they stick with me and they will be sticking with me as long as I’ve got the ability to breathe air into my body. I’ll forget about them when I die, OK? But you can’t do anything about them. You can’t go back and replay them. I can lay and replay them in my mind 100 times but the results are etched in stone and that’s it. So, you learn from things.

Look, I’m going to be my own worst critic. Nobody could ever criticize me than I will with myself. Honestly, don’t feel that any of the moves we made were the wrong moves. It just didn’t work out. A lot of people thought I should have bunted in the ninth inning (against UCLA in the CWS opener) when we got the tying run to first base to lead off the ninth inning. My goal was to get that runner to third base with less than two outs. You’re going against a pitcher with an 0.88 ERA for the year. We bunt him to second base — which is not even a given; (Raph) Rhymes didn’t have the sacrifice bunt all year — and that would have led us into the bottom third of the order, and how do you know that one of those guys is going to get a hit against the best relief pitcher in the country?

My thinking was, we had a better chance of scoring if we could get that runner to third base with less than two outs. Had a perfect situation: 2-0, they were expecting us to bunt, expect a hit-and-run, they pitched away, they fell behind in the count, knew they had to throw a strike, best bat handler up. Sure enough, the guy throws a strike and (Raph) Rhymes crushes it right at the third baseman and they turn a double play to put us into a difficult situation.

I’ve replayed that 100 times, 1,000 times in my head, but I still think it was the right thing to do and it just didn’t work out. Sometimes to win it all, you’ve just got to have some luck. At that moment, we didn’t.

ADVOCATE: Looking toward this season now. You lost seven off 11 pitchers, along with Mason Katz, JaCoby Jones and Raph Rhymes — a trio that combined to drive in 147 of your 394 runs. What are realistic expectations for 2014?

MAINIERI: Our expectations every year are to get to Omaha and win the national championship. And I think we’ve got a team that’s capable of it.

We’ve lost some key players from last year’s team. No question about that. Rhymes and Katz along with (Alex) Bregman were the heart of our order. We’ve got to replace those guys. We’ve got to replace a three-year starter at catcher as well as one of the best athletes we’ve ever had at second base in JaCoby Jones. We also have to replace seven of the 11 pitchers that went to Omaha with us, including the guy that had a season for the ages as a closer with Chris Cotton. Sixteen saves and a 1.16 ERA, and a second-round draft choice who was a starting pitcher in Ryan Eades.

It’s not like we don’t have areas we have to replace, but this is the case every year in college baseball. I like the idea that we’ve got a guy that’s the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year coming (Aaron Nola) and also the reigning top shortstop in the country coming back (Alex Bregman). That’s a pretty good place to start, but those are not the only players we have coming back. Christian Ibarra is a first team all-conference player at third base.

We also are returning two speedy outfielders in center field (Andrew Stevenson) and right field (Mark Laird). Laird, I think, had a phenomenal year for a freshman but he’ll be better this year and Stevenson was a game-changer defensively in center.

Depending on how some of these newcomers do, how some of the returning players improve, I don’t see why we can’t be right in the mix for everything again.

ADVOCATE: Where’s the weekend starting rotation at right now?

MAINIERI: First, you got Nola, who’s your bell cow. Right now, I think we’ve got three candidates for the other two spots.

The three would be Cody Glenn, who won (seven) games last year. Hunter Newman … he did some good things for us. He has the perfect pitchers body. He’s lanky. He throws 90-92 miles an hour. He’s got a nice breaking ball. We’ve just got to see what kind of jump he’s made. I love this freshman from Lutcher, Louisiana, by the name of Jared Poche. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year last year in Louisiana.

Another guy that could be in the mix is a guy named Kyle Bouman. He’s a junior college transfer, crafty left-hander. He could enter the mix. I think the wild cards are Kurt McCune and Joe Broussard. We’ll see where they fit in. We’ll define the roles as time goes on.

ADVOCATE: Cody Glenn went 7-3 and had an ERA 2.68 ERA last season. Why does he have to earn a spot?

MAINIERI: He disappointed us at the end of the year. Had a violation of team rules right before the regional tournament. We’re really disappointed in that, that he let his team down when they needed him the most.

That’s one of the reasons. The second reason is Cody is not an extremely hard thrower. He’s crafty, but every year is an entity into its own. If we can upgrade then that person will pitch ahead. I think that’s a sign of a good program, if you’re always attempting to improve. If there’s somebody who’s better than Cody, he’ll pitch in front of Cody.