Tigers’ eight-man senior class is still seeking that elusive trip to the College World Series
The LSU baseball team’s eight seniors will bid farewell to Alex Box Stadium after the Baton Rouge Super Regional against Oklahoma, which begins Friday. They need two victories to cap their careers with what so far has been an elusive trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
“The reason I came to LSU was to go to Omaha and win a national championship,” said first baseman Mason Katz, who’s from Harahan as one of seven seniors from Louisiana. “It’s close. We’re not there yet. All the guys who have been here as long as I have have learned you can’t really look to Omaha until you work your way there.”
The Tigers were in this same position a year ago and won the opening game before Stony Brook won the final two games of that super regional.
Katz is one of four Tigers trying to avoid being the first group of four-year seniors not to reach Omaha since LSU made its first trip there in 1986.
He’ll be at first base and batting in his customary cleanup spot. Raph Rhymes of Monroe will be in his regular spot in left field and follow Katz in the order.
If the Tigers have a slim lead late in a game, Chris Cotton of Shreveport will get a chance to break a tie with Matty Ott for the school record in saves. If Cotton gets that opportunity, it probably will be because Joey Bourgeois of Paulina held the lead before turning the game over to Cotton.
And if LSU is successful this weekend, somewhere along the way Brent Bonvillain, who’s from Houma, probably will have contributed an effective inning — or two, three or four.
“It’s crazy to think we have eight seniors on this team,” Cotton said. “That’s a lot to have. It’s a good thing that we have them. That leadership helps out. It doesn’t hurt, either, to have ones who could be starters on any other college team.”
Infielders Alex Edward (Baton Rouge) and Casey Yocom (Reno, Nev.) and reliever Kevin Berry (Metairie) haven’t had the impact of the others, but they’ve contributed.
“I think it’s pretty special that we’ve stayed this long and stuck it through,” Rhymes said. “There have been tough times, and it’s a special group.”
Katz, whose 13 home runs last season were the most of any returning player in the Southeastern Conference, has surpassed that total with 15 this season.
Rhymes, who was cut when he first tried to walk on to the team three years ago, couldn’t improve on his school-record .431 batting average, which earned him the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year award last season. But he still made first team all-conference and is hitting .340.
“It doesn’t happen often to have seniors come back,” Katz said. “But an All-American, SEC Player of the Year, nation’s leading hitter coming back — I guarantee you that doesn’t happen very often.”
Rhymes was drafted in the 40th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011 and in the 30th by the New York Yankees last summer. Katz has not been drafted.
“I count my lucky stars every day that Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes are still on this team,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
Mainieri said he’ll “cry like a baby” when he has to say goodbye to Cotton, who made the team as a walk-on four years ago for two reasons — he was left-handed, and he threw strikes.
Cotton evolved into a setup man last season and took over the closer’s role this year. He’s 16-for-17 in save situations.
“I don’t know how anybody could be more valuable than Chris Cotton, to win these close games in tough environments against great teams, the best teams in the country,” Mainieri said. “He’s just been a phenomenal player, a phenomenal person, and I’m going to miss the heck out of him next year.”
Bourgeois was drafted in the 39th round by the Atlanta Braves in 2009. He made the transition from starter to reliever after having elbow surgery that cost him the 2011 season.
“I just worked hard at that role every single day,” he said. “The biggest difference as a reliever is you have to put 100 percent into every pitch. You could be out there for one pitch or for three innings.”
A starter in high school and junior college, Bonvillain has started just six games in two seasons, but he has had some memorable outings. His four scoreless innings of relief helped the Tigers rally from a 7-2 deficit and win the decisive game of a series at No. 1 Florida last season. And he got the win by pitching 4.1 scoreless innings as the Tigers rallied from a 5-1 deficit to win at Missouri this season.
He got starts the past two weekends, and he helped LSU beat Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament title game and then finish a sweep of the Baton Rouge Regional by beating Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday.
“It’s different to have seniors be a lot of the main players,” Katz said, “but I think that helps us from a leadership standpoint and our on-field recognition of situations and feelings.”
When LSU fell behind Sam Houston State 5-1 in the first inning of the pivotal second game in last weekend’s regional, Rhymes said the seniors assured the younger players that there was no reason to panic. There was plenty of time to come back — and the Tigers did just that, eventually winning 8-5.
Rhymes, Katz, Cotton, Bourgeois and perhaps Bonvillain will be at center stage this weekend. But even if Edward, Yocom and Berry are in the background, they had their send-off in the regular-season finale, when Mainieri gave each extended playing time. Yocom had a career-high four hits.
Mainieri likened this group of seniors to the 2009 group, which happened to be part of LSU’s last team to reach Omaha as well as the last of the school’s six national champions.
“It’s been a great ride,” Rhymes said. “I’m looking forward to having a special weekend, and hopefully we’ll go out with a bang.”
Set to say goodbye
A glance at the eight seniors on the LSU baseball team:
- RHP Kevin Berry: Transfer from UNO has provided depth in the bullpen for the past three seasons.
- LHP Brent Bonvillain: Junior college transfer’s versatility paid off in lengthy relief stints as well as important starts in the SEC tourney title game and Baton Rouge Regional championship.
- RHP Joey Bourgeois: Overcame elbow surgery and subsequent transition from starter to reliever to become effective setup man.
- LHP Chris Cotton: Walked on four years ago and worked his way through the bullpen to have a record season as the closer. Earned MVP honors at the SEC tournament.
- OF Alex Edward: Four-year contributor had key hits in NCAA regional play in 2010 and ’12.
- INF/OF Mason Katz: Versatile defender who has played all three outfield positions, first base and second base while developing into the team’s top run producer as a senior.
- OF Raph Rhymes: Bounced back from a failed walk-on tryout in the fall of 2008 to become a fixture in left field and set the LSU record for batting average (.431) in 2012.
- INF Casey Yocom: Junior-college transfer is the primary backup middle infielder and had a career-high four hits on Senior Day last month.