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January 31, 2014
One key replacement needs to be found
LSU lost four three-year starters from its baseball team which won a school-record 57 games, including 23 in the Southeastern Conference, and advanced to the College World Series for the first time in four years.
Raph Rhymes, Mason Katz, JaCoby Jones and Ty Ross are all members of professional organizations as is Ryan Eades, one of the Tigers' three weekend starting pitchers.
With the 2014 season-opener against UNO just two weekends away, LSU coach Paul Mainieri is not greatly concerned about finding replacements for those five players. Mainieri admitted that he is not getting quality sleep because he hasn't identified who is going to step in for Chris Cotton as the closer.
"The key for us is finding someone to finish games for us," Mainieri said. "We have had Cotton and (Nick) Goody the past two years. That's the thing that keeps me still at night. Finding a closer is my biggest concern. If you can't finish games, you can't win in this league."
The quality of the closer has been a good barometer for the Tigers the past five seasons. Matty Ott was spectacular as a freshman in 2009 when LSU won the national title. Ott went into a late-season slide a year later and the Tigers needed to win the SEC tournament to reach the NCAA regionals.
In 2011, Ott continued to struggle and the Tigers lost numerous one-run games. The result was no NCAA tournament bid. Goody and Cotton were very effective as closers the past two seasons with LSU ending up being national seeds both years.
"The closer is as important as your No. 2 and No. 3 pitcher," Mainieri said. "Your season is defined by winning the close games. We have learned that around here."
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Three individuals are competing for the all-important closer's spot - junior college transfer Brady Domangue, senior Kurt McCune and junior Joe Broussard. McCune has been bothered by nagging injuries for two years, while Brossard sat out last season following Tommy John surgery.
"We gave Brady Domangue a chance at closing and he hasn't looked great so far," Mainieri said. "He has been a little rusty. McCune and Broussard are keys to our pitching staff. Both have had their moments. Kurt was a Friday starter as a freshman. Next to (Aaron) Nola, Joe has the best stuff on our team.
"Kurt had mono as a sophomore. Last year, we thought he was going to be our closer and Cotton our Sunday starter. Before the first game, Kurt gets back spasms and he has a stress fracture. That put him 1½ months behind. Joe has been inconsistent, a tad rusty. We have six weeks to decide (closer)."
The other roles in the bullpen will fall in place once Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn settle on a closer. Nola and Cody Glenn are returning weekend starters. However, Mainieri will only say that Nola has a rotation spot nailed down.
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Glenn, who was suspended from the team at the start of the postseason, is competing with two newcomers for the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the rotation - junior college transfer Kyle Bouman and freshman Jared Poche. All three of these pitchers are lefthanded. Poche has caught Mainieri's eye.
"I love Jared Poche," Mainieri said. "If he picks up two or three miles per hour, he can be somebody special. He needs some fine-tuning and Alan Dunn is working with him.
"Jared throws that high fast ball which in high school, guys would swing and miss. That won't happen in college. I wouldn't be surprised if Jared is in the weekend rotation when we open the SEC."
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Five of the nine players who were in the lineup during LSU's brief stay at the College World Series last June are back - designated hitter Sean McMullen, centerfielder Andrew Stevenson, rightfielder Mark Laird, third baseman Christian Ibarra and shortstop Alex Bregman.
Of that group, the only player who may have a different role is McMullen. Jared Foster and Chris Sciambra are competing with McMullen for the starting job in leftfield. McMullen will be the DH if not the leftfielder. Mainieri has been impressed by Foster during the first week of preseason practice.
"The guy coming on is Jared Foster," Mainieri said. "He is right up there as an athlete on our team. He has been very inconsistent in his career. When he's been good, he has been very good."
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The right side of the infield will be new with Katz and Jones moving on. It appears junior college transfer Connor Hale will take over for Jones at second base. Hale, who was recruited as a third base replacement for Ibarra, worked at first base during fall practice.
"(Freshmen) Danny Zardon and Kramer Robertson were working at second base during the fall," Mainieri said. "After fall practice, I decided to move Hale over there. The competition is still going on there. Zardon and Robertson are eventually going to be good players. I don't know when."
The first base position is connected with the catcher's spot. According to Mainieri, three players are competing for the two positions - Tyler Moore, Chris Chinea and junior college transfer Kade Scivicque. Whoever is not catching on a particular day will be in the lineup at first base.
"We have a three-headed monster at catcher," Mainieri said. "All three are steady defensive players, but not spectacular. They are not as good defensively as Ross. But, they all can swing the bat better than Ross. Whoever is not catching will be at first base."
Mainieri indicated that McMullen will lead off with Laird batting second and Bregman third. Ibarra and Moore will bat behind Bregman in the lineup.
Despite all the losses from last season's team, LSU is expected to compete for the SEC title and a berth in the College World Series. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are the other SEC teams listed as top contenders along with LSU.
"People don't want to hear excuses around here," Mainieri said. "They want you to reload and get going. We have that team that will be able to make a run (to Omaha) again. We are two weeks away from opening day. The team is rounding into shape. We are right where we need to be."