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SEC Fall Check-In: LSU

It’s hard to fathom being disappointed with a season that yielded 47 victories, a regular season SEC title and a SEC West championship, but that’s exactly the case for last year in Baton Rouge. The LSU Tigers were bounced in a home Super Regional by the upstart Stony Brook Sea Wolves, leaving Coach Paul Mainieri’s team just one game away from a trip to Omaha.

“Obviously losing [the Super Regional] was a bitter pill to swallow,” Mainieri said. “Around LSU, if you don’t get to Omaha, you’re not satisfied with the season.”

 

Fall Camp

Expectations are high at Tigers camp this year, as a solid core returns to the team in addition to the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class. LSU was dealt an early blow after Joe Broussard needed Tommy John surgery after pitching in the Cape Cod League over the Summer, but Mainieri doesn’t think that obstacle will prove too much to overcome.

“We have a chance to be one of the best teams in the country,” Mainieri said. “No doubt about it.”

That’s a safe bet for the Tigers these days, especially with Mainieri at the helm. The coach has the second-highest winning percentage of any manager at LSU since 1900, and the Tigers appear locked and loaded for another great season of baseball.

The Tigers have the talent to make another run at the College World Series this season, but Mainieri knows it’s just a matter of the team executing what they need to do and maintaining the right mindset.

“This season does not start being one game away from Omaha,” the coach added.

 

Fresh Faces

Taking a 47-win team and adding the No. 4 national recruiting class certainly doesn’t hurt at all. Even with a solid foundation already on this Tigers team, a number of newcomers are competing for early playing time in Baton Rouge.

It all starts with Alex Bregman, an infielder from Albuquerque, N.M., who will be competing for time at shortstop. Mainieri sees LSU as fortunate to land Bregman, who batted .678 his junior year of high school with 19 home runs, a New Mexico state record. Bregman suffered an injury prior to his senior season, and the new MLB draft rules helped contribute to Bregman’s draft stock falling to the 29th round.

A trio of left-handed hitting outfielders also made their way to LSU for this season. Mark Laird, Andrew Stevenson, and Sean McMullen all look to be vying for instant playing time as Tigers. Laird and Stevenson are both freshmen, while McMullen is a transfer from Delgado Community College. Last year, McMullen hit .452 with 35 extra base hits, including five home runs, while tallying 37 RBI.

On the mound, Will LaMarche and Mitchell Sewald highlight the LSU newcomers. Both are fresh out of high school and already developed national reputations. LaMarche was drafted in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins, showcasing a mid-90s fastball. Sewald made national headlines by throwing 154 pitches in one game in high school. Sewald’s fastball is already in the mid-90s, and he flashes a 12-to-6 curveball as a complement.

 

Key Returners

LSU returns a deep cast of players who were key in last season’s Super Regional run, but two names were standouts to Mainieri. Those players were seniors Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz, who will provide security and consistency to the Tiger lineup this Spring.

Raph Rhymes looks to continue his stellar hitting this season for LSU. He batted .431 last year with 100 hits.

Rhymes led the SEC in batting average last season, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since he hit at an astonishing .431 clip in his 61 starts. He led the Tigers in hits in the 2012 season with 100, posting 23 more than the second-place finisher, Katz, despite playing in three fewer games. Rhymes also led the team in RBI with 53, beating out Katz by one, and he posted a .530 slugging percentage.

Katz led LSU last season in home runs with 13. He also added 52 RBI and slugged .552. Katz’s combination of speed and power was unmatched by any teammates last season, as he added eight stolen bases (good for second on the team) to his dangerous bat. Katz fielded an impressive .986 last season, good for third on the team among players with 25 or more starts.

Mainieri identified Jacoby Jones as the team’s “wild card” for the upcoming season. Last year, Jones hit at a .253/.363/.308 mark, but his potential makes him dangerous for the 2013 year.

“Jacoby is very talented,” Mainieri said. “He just needs to be more consistent.”

 

Position Battles

To say that Mainieri has a good handle on things at LSU is a major understatement, as only a couple of positions appear to be up in the air right now.

The starting pitching rotation has a solid one-two punch in Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades, who posted ERA’s of 3.61 and 3.83 last season, respectively. The third spot, though, is up in the air right now. Sewald and LaMarch appear to be in contention for that spot, and they will likely go up against veteran Kurt McCune for early innings. McCune tallied six starts last season in 21 appearances.

A handful of players will be competing for time in the outfield this season for the Tigers, as only Rhymes has locked a position. Chris Sciambra made 22 appearances last season for LSU in the outfield, starting 16, and Alex Edward started 22 games last season with 27 appearances. The trio of talented newcomers; McMullen, Laird, and Stevenson, should also be factoring into the battle for playing time in the outfield.

 

Fall Traditions

Mainieri likes to run a tight fall camp in Baton Rouge, so the traditions aren’t aplenty for the Tigers. The Fall will conclude with the “Purple vs. Gold World Series,” an annual staple for LSU baseball.

Asked about any further traditions, Mainieri joked “we have a pretty good football team around here, so the kids like to go see them play.”

The “Purple vs. Gold World Series” will be taking place this year Oct. 30, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 at Alex Box Stadium.