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May 22, 2013LSU won a national championship under coach Paul Mainieri just four seasons ago.
However, Mainieri quickly realized that there was going to be a change in the way college baseball was going to be played when bat limitations were imposed for the 2011 season.
The home run was not going to be a major factor in college baseball. Good pitching was the main ingredient for winning championships.
"We are in a new era of college baseball," Mainieri said. "You had better be dominant on the mound if you are going to get to Omaha. You are never going to get to Omaha just with your lineup."
In 2011, the Tigers failed to qualify for both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments. Even if less potent bats, LSU's team earned run average was a relatively high 4.13. Pitching coach David Grewe left the program after the 2011 campaign.
Mainieri understood he needed to make a solid hire for his next pitching coach. His choice was Alan Dunn, who had been in professional baseball for nearly 20 years. But, Mainieri's selection has turned out to be outstanding. Pitching has been a main reason for the Tigers' 48-8 regular-season record.
After watching his team not reach the NCAA tournament in 2011, Mainieri kept one statistic in his mind - team ERA. Mainieri felt that number had to be below 3.00 if LSU was going to contend for a College World Series title.
Dunn began working at lowering that figure. In 2012, the Tigers' pitching staff had a 3.25 ERA. Heading into LSU's first SEC tournament game against Alabama on Wednesday afternoon, its team ERA sits at 2.53.
"Alan Dunn has just done a phenomenal job," Mainieri said. "All of the pitchers seem to get better. Alan's influence on the staff is as much a reason as any for us not losing a midweek game the past two years. We let everybody pitch and that has only made them stronger."
Dunn had worked at every level in minor league baseball as a pitching coach. In the last few years, he was a minor league pitching coordinator and then a bullpen coach for the Baltimore Orioles. Dunn had no idea what were the results going to be when he took over the Tigers pitching staff for 2012.
"I don't know if I had expectations," Dunn said. "I had been away from college ball for so long and it has changed. It has been a tremendous experience so far. The good results are because of the ones pitching. You give guys the opportunity. Then, you put them in the situation where they can have success."
Opposing hitters are batting just .221 against the Tigers staff. LSU pitchers have greater than a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. No pitcher has an ERA as high as 4.00. The Tigers have allowed more than five runs in just six games this season.
"A.D. has been great," said Cody Glenn, who will be the starting pitcher for LSU against Alabama on Wednesday afternoon. "He has worked with me in all facets of the game from my mechanics to my mentality. He is the reason I am putting up better numbers this year than last year."
Glenn wasn't a factor in the last half of the 2012 season. This year, Glenn has made 13 starts and has fashioned a 6-2 record with a 2.64 ERA. Opposing batters have a .236 average against the sophomore lefthander.
Ryan Eades is another Tigers hurler who has benefitted from Dunn's tutelage. Eades has steadily improved in his two years with Dunn. Eades, who is projected to be late first or early second-round draft choice next month, has an 8-1 record with a 2.70 ERA in 87 innings.
"A.D. has done a lot for me,"Eades said. "I can speak for the pitching staff as a whole for what he has done. I have developed as a pitcher. I have learned how to pitch - how to set hitters up. He has you thinking about the small details.
"A.D. is really intense. He is focused and locked in on the task at hand. If the situation calls for it, he'll get on us. He wants us to be on the top of his game. If you are slacking or not going 100 percent, he kind of jumps on you."
It has not taken Dunn long to adjust to being a pitching coach once again. Dunn is certainly a teacher when it comes to the pitching part of the game.
"Being a pitching coach got me back to the roots of what I had done for 15 to 17 years," Dunn said. "It was what I had done in the minor leagues - grind every single day. That's my passion, my love - getting 16 to 18 guys ready to compete every day. That gave me energy."
Dunn has three rules for the members of his pitching staff - pitch to your strength, pitch with conviction and fill up the strike zone. He will preach those three points at any time of the day.
"I talk about these things during the game or at any time," Dunn said. "It may be in the outfield during batting practice. Whenever the time comes and I need to do that, I will. I want all of us - the pitcher, (catcher) Ty Ross and me - on the same page."
Mainieri believes that Dunn has the proper makeup to be a successful pitching coach.
"Alan is the ultra competitor," Mainieri said. "He is so positive, so optimistic. He believes in the pitchers and he lets them know it. But, he is also very demanding. Alan is hard-nosed and intense. When he gets mad at them, they know there is a reason."
When Dunn was hired, there was the issue of calling pitches. Catchers call the game in professional baseball. Coaches handle that chore in college. It took some convincing from Mainieri, with a little help from former LSU coach Skip Bertman, for Dunn to accept that responsibility.
"Calling pitches was a part of the game in which I was on the other side," Dunn said. "It is not done in professional baseball. I had to see how it works in college baseball. One thing I was worried about was the flow of the game. But, the pitchers realized we needed a tempo. So, that concern was squelched."
Maybe the greatest complement came from Mason Katz, the team leader in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
"A.D.'s the man," Katz said. "He is a genius. He is so smart. He has been through it all. What he does so well is that he knows each pitcher's best pitch. He also has a great knowledge of the hitters. I am sure if you asked him, he would know exactly what to do to get me out."