LSU baseball: Q&A with Paul Mainieri, Part I

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri addresses media in his office before the Phillies selected pitcher Aaron Nola in the Major League Baseball draft June 5. Mainieri and the Tigers were within six outs of the NCAA super regionals before losing twice to Houston. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri addresses media in his office before the Phillies selected pitcher Aaron Nola in the Major League Baseball draft June 5. Mainieri and the Tigers were within six outs of the NCAA super regionals before losing twice to Houston.

LSU’s 2014 season ended in what coach Paul Mainieri calls a “screeching halt.”

A team that appeared destined for a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, lost a regional at home by dropping the final two games to Houston. The Tigers were six outs from advancing to the super regional round before collapsing and losing to the Cougars in 11 innings. Then they were beaten 12-2, the program’s worst loss in an NCAA regional game in 22 years.

Mainieri sat down with The Advocate earlier this week for an interview.

In Part I of the segment below, the coach speaks on two questions about the 2014 season, his eighth with the program.

In Part II, which runs Sunday, Mainieri touches on the fan reaction to the season-ending loss and the highly touted signing class that he says might be the best group he’s ever signed.

The Advocate: When you look back at the 2014 season, what will you remember?

Mainieri: Well, it was not an easy season. There’s no question about it.

There were some areas we were a little bit thin in, and there were some times when we struggled during the course of the year, but when I think of the year, I think how we rebounded from that one tough stretch. We had a five-game winless stretch there at the end of March. From April 1st on … I’ll bet our record was something really significant.

When I think of the 2014 season, I’ll think about a team that was at a crossroads at the end of March and could have taken the path that the losers take, and our players chose to take the path that the winners take. I thought they played great baseball for two months. During the stretch there at the end, for 10 games and seven innings, I think we were about as good as any team in the country could play. We had really one bad inning where some breaks just really went against us. I wouldn’t say anybody could ever accuse Houston of crushing the ball in that eighth inning against us. There were a lot of fortuitous hits on their part, a strange umpire’s call. Guy tried to bunt, couldn’t get the bunt down and caps one off the end of the bat and still was able to advance the runners.

I’ll bet up to that point, we hadn’t given up four runs in one inning five times all year. And this team, Houston, had scored one run in the previous 16 innings against us. I didn’t think there was anyway they could score four runs in the eighth inning against our bullpen there — (Kurt) McCune, (Zac) Person and (Nate) Fury. And, yet, somehow they scratched them across, and they tied the game. It just changed our entire season.

The final game was such an aberration to our season. We pieced it together so many times, and (Alden) Cartwright pitched well, and (Parker) Bugg pitched well and whatever. This game just got away from us early. We walked or hit (10) guys, of which seven guys scored. And it just created such a huge deficit, and their kid (Houston’s Jared Robinson) had a funny pitch, and it was hard to hit. He threw 191 pitches in four days, that kid. We weren’t able to rally against him.

Our season came to a screeching halt, but when I think of 2014, I’m going to think of a group of kids that didn’t give up on the season, that rallied, made a great run at it and at the very end we had a very bitter disappointment because we thought we were an Omaha team, we were going to host a super regional against Texas (and) thought we could win the national championship.

One bad inning — the eighth inning of the first championship game — kind of set our fate at that point.

The Advocate: Given the pitching depth issue of last season, did the 2014 team overachieve?

Mainieri: I feel like in a weird way we overachieved from a pitching standpoint because … I say ‘a weird way’ because we had the best pitcher in the country also on that pitching staff, and thank goodness we did because (Aaron Nola) was able to set a tone for us every weekend. When you win 15 of the 16 games that he started, that means you’ve just got to figure out a way to win one of the other two games that weekend to win a weekend series. Other than the weekend he lost, where we got swept (at Florida), we never got swept in another weekend series because of Aaron Nola.

On the other hand, you’re counting on a true freshman to be your No. 2 starter. And really, going into the year, I would have thought Jared (Poché) should have been maybe the Sunday starter or a midweek starter. We kind of forced him into the No. 2 starter, and look how he responded to that. He went out and won nine games with an ERA of (2.45). He established himself as a quality SEC pitcher, but you couldn’t have predicted that going in.

Our closer situation was really a big question mark going into the year. I always thought Joe Broussard had the potential to be that guy, but, hey, the guy’s coming off Tommy John surgery, and prior to Tommy John surgery his first two years he had a pretty inconsistent career. Boy, the guy goes out there in 2014 and was consistent. You could count on him, he threw strikes, made adjustments, saved some big games for us.

I think between Poché, Broussard, they pitched up to their capabilities. Then I think we had a slew of games not exceptionally hard throwers that (pitching coach) Alan Dunn figured out a way for each of those pitchers to have a niche where they could contribute. And that’s where people who criticize ‘Should have taken this guy out, should have put this guy (in), should have left this guy (in)’ … They don’t really know what our pitchers’ capabilities are like our pitching coach and I do.

You leave a guy in because he’s pitching good. Well, the next inning could be a disaster. You saw that happen with Parker Bugg in the final game. He pitched two great innings, and all of the sudden the third inning he lost it. Before you know it, you have given up a crooked number. That had the potential to happen with a lot of our pitchers.

What we did, we put them in a role where they could be successful. And we got them out of there before their limitations were exposed.

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv. For more coverage of LSU baseball, follow our Line Drives blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/linedrives/