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June 7, 2012It was an inexperienced LSU team which failed to earn a NCAA tournament berth in 2011.
The Tigers had just three returning full-time starters a year ago - Mikie Mahook, Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover. LSU coach Paul Mainieri counted on four other players, three of whom had never participated in a college, to carry a huge load at the plate.
Freshman Ty Ross was the starting catcher, while freshman JaCoby Jones won the second base job. Sophomore Raph Rhymes, a transfer from LSU-Eunice, was the designated hitter. Sophomore Mason Katz, who had started eight games in 2010, batted in the lineup just ahead of Mahtook.
Three of those four players - all but Ross - batted higher than .333 in 2011. However, there is no doubt that each member of this quartet has played a key role for the Tigers, who begin a super-regional series against Stony Brook at The Box on Friday morning.
"It's great to see the season Ty Ross is having," said Katz, the veteran of the group. "He has grown up as a hitter. Ty has been a force for us. JaCoby is learning the type of hitter he is. He is using the whole field. Then, what can you say about Raph?"
Katz' batting average is slightly down from last year, but his power numbers are up as well as his walk total. Katz benefitted from batting ahead of Mahtook in the lineup in 2011. Until the second part of the season, Katz was the one hitter opposing teams concentrated getting out.
"It has been a little tougher this year for me," Katz said. "A lot of times last year I got fast balls since the other team was trying to get a quick out with Mikie coming up next. This year, I've been trying to take advantage of the pitcher's mistake. I've learned not to just sit on fast balls."
Rhymes, who is behind Katz in the batting order this season, is a totally different type of hitter than Mahtook. Rhymes is strictly a singles hitter, while Mahtook was an extra-base hit threat. There was nothing wrong with Rhymes' first season with the Tigers as evidenced by his .360 batting average.
Following the NCAA tournament regionals, Rhymes is the leading hitter in the country at .452. As late as the beginning of May, Rhymes had a .500 batting mark. He is certainly a good bet to set the school record for batting average. Rhymes acknowledged that he is a better overall player this year.
"I learned how to deal with adversity last year," Rhymes said. "Coming into the SEC, I had to deal with failure. I was used to hitting .500 in high school. Then, I hit like that in junior college. I had some failure in baseball, but not like what can happen in the SEC."
Ross had a very tough time adjusting to life in the Southeastern Conference. He batted only .223 with 20 RBIs while striking out 38 times. Ross only threw out ten base-stealers. There has been no more improved player in the SEC this season.
Ross' batting average is higher than .300. He has doubled his RBI total, while almost cutting his strikeout number in half. Ross has thrown out 16 potential base-stealers.
"I am better this year because of experience," Ross said. "I know what to expect now. Last year, I got thrown into the fire. I came behind a great catcher in Micah Gibbs. I didn't get the chance of learning under another catcher.
"Simply playing games helps the most. All the opportunities I had last year - at LSU and in the Cape Cod league - paid off this year."
Jones is the one player of the four whose numbers have taken a dip in 2012. Chalk it up to the "sophomore slump." But, Jones had some on-field adjustments to make. He prepared all fall to be the Tigers' starting center fielder after being an infielder in previous years.
About two weeks into the regular season, Jones was moved back to second base. Moreover, Jones struggled at the plate when he started the year at the top of the batting order. Despite his lower batting average, Jones feels he is a better hitter.
"My pitch selection has improved," Jones said. "I feel like I have hit the ball harder this year. I got a lot of infield hits last year, maybe 17 or 18. I tell Raph all the time that he got all my infield hits this year. But, I'm playing for championships and not records.
"I'd rather hit .250 and be in the super-regionals than hit .340 and not make the (NCAA) tournament. It's been totally different for me this year because of my experience. I don't feel overwhelmed at The Box. That has helped me at the plate and in the field."
One plus for the LSU baseball program is that all four individuals will be back a third-year as a starter in 2013. Ross and Jones were not draft-eligible. Katz was not drafted, while Rhymes was chosen in the 30th round. Rhymes has said that he will return for his senior season.
Here are the 2011 and 2012 statistics for LSU's four second-year starters.
2011: 195 AB, .338 BA, 4 HR, 32 RBI, 11 2B, 1 3B, 12 BB, 37 SO
2012: 233 AB, .253 BA, 3 HR, 28 RBI, 13 2B, 1 3B, 13 BB, 44 SO
2011: 190 AB, .337 BA, 4 HR, 53 RBI, 21 2B, 2 3B, 9 BB, 34 SO
2012: 229 AB, .323 BA, 11 HR, 49 RBI, 15 2B, 1 3B, 32 BB, 50 SO
2011: 214 AB, .360 BA, 3 HR, 42 RBI, 18 2B, 41 BB, 32 SO
2012: 219 AB, .452 BA, 4 HR, 52 RBI, 11 2B, 22 BB, 12 SO
2011: 148 AB, .223 BA, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 5 2B, 13 BB, 38 SO
2012: 175 AB, .309 BA, 3 HR, 40 RBI, 6 2B, 1 3B, 19 BB, 23 SO