Defense helped send Tigers to Omaha

Anyone who saw the LSU baseball team play in the Baton Rouge Regional two weekends ago saw little evidence of just how good a defensive team it is.

The Tigers ran into each other, misplayed grounders and made errant throws. Though they swept through the regional in three games, they made things tougher than they needed to be with uncharacteristic self-inflicted wounds.

But that was clearly an aberration as LSU returned to its stellar defensive play while sweeping Oklahoma in the Baton Rouge Super Regional last weekend. The Tigers head to the College World Series with the fifth-highest fielding percentage in the country (.980).

Make no mistake about it, the Tigers’ ability to field could be a difference-maker in the CWS.

“We hit, we pitch and we play good defense,” outfielder Raph Rhymes said. “You can’t win without good defense. That’s just as important as everything else.”

The Tigers’ opening opponent, UCLA, has the same fielding percentage as LSU but ranks sixth when the percentages are rounded.

The rest of the teams headed to Omaha, Neb., seem to be at a decided disadvantage defensively. North Carolina (.975) ranks 28th, Oregon State (.973) ranks 47th, Mississippi State (.972) ranks 66th, Louisville (.971) ranks 71st, North Carolina State (.970) ranks 86th and Indiana (.965) ranks 159th.

LSU’s fielding percentage is higher than that of all but one of the last 10 College World Series champions. Rice won the 2003 CWS title while fielding at the same rate as the Tigers currently are. When LSU won the CWS in 2009, its fielding percentage was .974.

Coach Paul Mainieri said the return to exceptional defense against the Sooners “was the most positive thing coming out of the weekend for me.”

“Everybody seemed to feel more comfortable and more normal,” he said. “Our defense was absolutely phenomenal all weekend.”

Shortstop Alex Bregman and third baseman Christian Ibarra, who committed three errors and two, respectively, in the regional, were both flawless and turned in tricky plays in the super regional.

Second baseman JaCoby Jones made a few sparkling plays, and any errant throws from infielders were saved by Mason Katz. The outfield was flawless and Rhymes turned in the top play of the weekend with a leaping catch against the wall in left field in the clinching victory.

The only misplay was a throwing error by catcher Ty Ross — his only error this season — on a stolen base, which didn’t lead to a run.

“I think we came out on top because we played good defense like we have all year,” Rhymes said.

Both teams played error-free ball in a tense 2-0 LSU win in Game 1 as Aaron Nola outdueled Sooners ace Jonathan Gray, who had been selected with the third pick in the pro draft a night earlier.

“Going against Jonathan Gray you cannot expect to score many runs,” Katz said. “We knew going against that team with their pitching staff that defense was going to be the key to us winning that super regional.”

Mainieri praised Rhymes for his hard work in improving as a defensive player even as he became noted for his hitting. Rhymes said he focused on his defense during the summer and fall of 2011 when elbow surgery prevented him from batting or throwing.

“I stepped back and realized that if I wanted to become a top player and help the team win, I had to work on my defense,” said Rhymes, who hasn’t committed an error this season. “When I couldn’t throw, I took advantage of that time to work on my defense and that helped. It’s something I always take pride in.”

Mainieri has taken exceptional pride in his team’s defense this season, which made the mistakes in the regional so surprising.

The Tigers committed a season-high five errors in Game 2 against Sam Houston State, and all six runs allowed after the first game were unearned.

But the Tigers seemed to get back on track defensively last weekend, and defense could be a big factor in Omaha.

TD Ameritrade Park is a pitcher’s park where defensive lapses and unearned runs can be lethal.

Mainieri said perhaps the biggest improvement in this year’s team compared to last year’s is its defense in the outfield with addition of two speedy players to help Rhymes in center fielder Andrew Stevenson and right fielder Mark Laird.

Laird was sidelined three weeks ago when he sprained his left ankle during the Southeastern Conference tournament. He returned for the final game of the regional but was obviously limited.

He was noticeably better in the super regional and said Tuesday he’ll be ready to roam the alleys in TD Ameritrade.

“Speed is going to be a key in the outfield,” Laird said. “I feel much more comfortable defensively. I don’t have any question that I’ll be able to cover the same amount of ground that I’m used to covering.”

Bregman said even though the Tigers “didn’t play that great in the regional, we still had confidence we could go out and play good defense last weekend.”

“We feel like this team is second to none defensively and we have to continue that in Omaha,” Bregman said. “The way we played defense last week gives us a lot of confidence going there.”