The LSU baseball program took a big step in the right direction in 2012. Just one year removed from missing the NCAA tournament altogether, the Purple and Gold were back in the postseason mix. "When you are at LSU, the expectation is to make it to Omaha and win a championship," LSU head baseball coach Paul Mainieri said. That explains the disappointment from a year ago. Despite LSU being just one win away from advancing to the College World Series, many left Alex Box Stadium on June 10, 2012 feeling empty. Stony Brook, a little-known school from Long Island, New York, traveled to the most intimidating stadium to play college baseball and shocked the world by winning two of three games against LSU. Many Tiger fans had to cancel their plans for Omaha. They hope to book that trip again in 2013.
"We feel like we have a very talented ball club with a very experienced pitching staff," said Mainieri, who was recently selected for induction into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. That experienced pitching staff will be without the ace of the bunch from a year ago: Kevin Gausman. Gausman was picked fourth overall in the MLB draft by the Baltimore Orioles organization after earning 12 wins in 17 starts on the mound.
But even with All-American Gausman gone, LSU appears to be in good shape on the mound. Sophomore Aaron Nola (7-4) and junior Ryan Eades (5-3) will be the one-two punch Mainieri sends out on the mound on Friday and Saturday. That pair, despite being relatively young, has a great deal of experience on the hill. It's experience the Tigers will need to compete in the Southeastern Conference. The third weekend starting pitching spot is still up in the air. Chris Cotton, Nick Rumbelow, Joe Broussard, and Joey Bourgeois will all be counted on for valuable minutes. LSU was much better closing out games a year ago than they were in the 2011 season. Mainieri is not sure who the closer will be this year, and says he's more concerned about fi lling that hole than the position of third starter.
In the outfi eld, LSU will be much more athletic. They'll get Chris Sciambra back at centerfi eld after he missed the back half of the season with an injury. Junior college transfer Sean McMullen has the much-needed speed to track down balls that may have dropped a year ago. Freshmen Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson are a pair of speedy left-handers adding depth to an outfi eld that hurt the team defensively at times last year. In the infi eld, Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover are gone. It's been several years since those two weren't making plays on the left side of the diamond. Replacing Nola at shortstop will be a new addition who Mainieri expects to make the biggest impact: Alex Bregman. JUCO transfer Christian Ibarra is expected to take over for Hanover at third base. On the right side of the infi eld, Jacoby Jones will start at second base for the third straight season. Mason Katz is expected to start at fi rst base, where he was in the lineup 33 times in 2012. Ty Ross will be the primary starting catcher. Raph Rhymes has shown he can play outfi eld, but will mostly be used as the team's designated hitter.
Offensively, the bats went cold at the wrong time a year ago. Mainieri is extremely excited about the middle of the lineup. That's where you'll fi nd Alex Bregman. He, more than likely, would have been a fi rst-round pick in the MLB draft before suffering an injury prior to his senior year of high school. Senior Mason Katz, the leading returning homerun hitter in the SEC, will be in that middle group, fi lling in the 3-4-5 holes in the lineup. Katz smashed 13 long balls in 2012. To add to that, he batted .320, with 15 doubles and 52 runs batted in. Last, but certainly not least, is senior Raph Rhymes. Rhymes, a fi rst team All-American in 2012, led the nation in hitting with a .431 average. "Once you have a good heart of the order, you look for a couple of table setters and few good guys for the bottom half, and you have a chance to have a pretty good lineup," Mainieri said.
Regular season prediction: 2nd in the SEC (40-16 overall, 17-13 in the SEC)
Postseason prediction: Regional and Super Regional Champions, reach College World Series and finish 5th