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June 7, 2012

Major ingredient for success

LSU is on the threshold of advancing to another College World Series.

Undoubtedly, the Tigers have relied upon strong pitching - both starters and bullpen - to win the Southeastern Conference championship and a NCAA regional tournament last weekend.

However, not to be overlooked is LSU's defense. The Tigers enter their super-regional series against Stony Brook on Friday with a .981 fielding percentage. No LSU team has registered a higher fielding percentage in recent years.

"Our defense may be overlooked by the media and our fans, but it has not been overlooked by me or the team," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "Fielding around .980 is major league caliber defense. The steadiness of our defense has helped our pitching. Pitching and defense go hand-in-hand."

No matter what area of the team one examines, strong defense is present. Of course, the top defensive performer is senior shortstop Austin Nola, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday. Nola has committed only five errors in 240 chances this season.

"Coach Mainieri stresses good defense every year," Nola said. "Good defense helps the pitching staff. We play the game hard. That's defense. The pitchers get the ball down and we get a lot of ground balls and a lot of outs."

Every player on the LSU team has a perfect model in Nola, who has a very detailed practice routine. Going back to his high school days at Baton Rouge Catholic, Nola has a daily practice plan as regards his defense.

"I like to take about 20 ground balls a day at practice," Nola said. "My routine has helped me. I believe in quality over quantity. How many grounders you take perfectly is what's important. I concentrate on my footwork first and then my hands. I don't miss a whole lot of ground balls at practice."

Nola's partner on the left side of the infield is senior Tyler Hanover. A second baseman in high school, Hanover has played third base for three of his four years with the Tigers. Hanover has reduced the number of errors during his three seasons at third base - 13 in 2009, 10 in 2011 and nine in 2012.

"My versatility is what got me in the lineup as a freshman (at third base)," Hanover said. "It's all reaction at third base and that's definitely tough. The ball gets on you quickly, so you can't read the hops as well as you can at second base. You have to decide whether to come and get the ball or sit back.

"It takes repetitions to learn what balls to come in on. In practice, I try to get as many ground balls as possible. The more ground balls you take, the better you will be. I believe if I get enough work, I could play anywhere in the infield. I could go to shortstop and be comfortable."

Another player whose defensive work has improved significantly over the past year is catcher Ty Ross. As a freshman in 2011, Ross threw out just 10 of 59 base-stealers. So far this year, Ross has cut down 16 of 45 potential base-stealers.

"I've worked hard at throwing guys out," Ross said. "I have refined my footwork and I have worked on keeping my shoulder in line. Last year, I just used by arm. This year, I have my legs in line every time. I have consistent footwork. I have been more accurate with my throws."

Mason Katz has experienced a more challenging situation as he has split time between first base and right field. Katz has committed just four errors at the two positions this season.

"I practice enough at both positions," Katz said. "I take ground balls at first base and then at the end of batting practice I run around (catching balls) in right field. I have confidence in myself at both positions. To me, first base is toughest. My defense has improved, probably more so at first base, since last year.

"The play of our defense has been huge, especially when you have pitchers like Aaron Nola who pound the strike zone. We know the type of offense we are. We have to play good defense and hold the other team down as much as we can."

Even Raph Rhymes, who leads the country in hitting with a .452 average, talks about his improvement in the outfield. Last season, Rhymes was simply a designated hitter. He has been the Tigers' starting left fielder this year.

"I am definitely better defensively this year than last year," Rhymes said. "I had to go through some growing pains in the outfield."

Amazingly, none of these position players earned a spot on the SEC's All-Defense team. The Tigers' only representative was pitcher Ryan Eades.

"That was a cool award to win," Eades said. "I just do what I can to help the team win. Our defense has played great all year. It is a tremendous part of the success we've had. Austin Nola is one of the best shortstops in the country. We've got good guys all around and that makes our job as pitchers easier."

Kevin Gausman, who was the fourth pick in the major league draft Monday night by the Baltimore Orioles, is quite appreciative of the plays made by his teammates.

"I can't win without the team behind me," said Gausman, who has an 11-1 record. "It's been incredible this year. If a ball is hit in the infield, there's a pretty good chance that somebody will gobble it up, especially Nola. There's Tyler coming in on balls and (second baseman) JaCoby Jones has great range."



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