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January 25, 2013

Ready to return to Omaha

LSU was ready to celebrate another trip to the College World Series last June.

The Tigers had won their first game of the super-regional against Stony Brook at The Box. However, LSU couldn't come up with that second victory. For the third straight year, the Tigers' season came to an end short of an appearance in the College World Series.

Practice for the 2013 baseball season began Friday afternoon. LSU will open its season in 21 days against Maryland in a weekend series at The Box. Coach Paul Mainieri knows there is one goal when it comes to Tigers baseball.

"I don't like it that we haven't been to Omaha the last three years," said Mainieri at LSU's Baseball Media Day activities Friday. "Anything short of (getting to Omaha) is disappointing for LSU. That's what we want to do.

"You have to fight through a 56-game schedule to put yourself in good position. Hopefully, your body of work in the regular season will put you in the postseason and in the most positive position. That means being a national seed and hosting at The Box."

The Tigers were a national seed a year ago after winning the Southeastern Conference championship. LSU swept three games in the regional - one against Louisiana-Monroe and two against Oregon State. But, the Tigers were surprised by Stony Brook one weekend later.

Mainieri will have a very experienced team attempting to successfully defend the SEC title. LSU lost just four key members of the 2012 team - shortstop Austin Nola, third baseman Tyler Hanover, No. 1 pitcher Kevin Gausman and closer Nick Goody.

"I am optimistic about this year's ball club," Mainieri said. "We have a lot of returning guys. There are not too many teams who have two hitters returning as seniors with the ability of (Raph) Rhymes and (Mason) Katz.

"Rhymes was the SEC Player of the Year last year, while Katz has the most home runs of any returning player in the SEC. Those two guys with Alex Bregman will give us the best heart of the lineup we have had in a few years."

Bregman is the most heralded newcomer. A freshman from Albuquerque, N.M., Bregman will not only replace Nola at shortstop, but will also bat third in the lineup. Rhymes will hit fourth, while Katz will bat fifth in the order.

Hanover will be replaced by junior college transfer Christian Ibarra, a former shortstop who has made the move to third base. Finding another starting pitcher and the closer are Mainieri's tasks over the next two weeks.

Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades will be the top two weekend starting pitchers. Mainieri is not ready to identify the Friday starter, but one would assume it would be Nola. Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn must settle on a third starter and a closer.

"We will not decide a third starter until two weeks from today," Mainieri said. "With one full week to go (before the opener), we want to know our third starter, our midweek starter, our closer. We want to set up the roles in the bullpen then.

"We will decide upon a closer first. The difference in our 2011 and 2012 seasons justifies the emphasis on (finding a closer). In 2011, we lost nine one or two-run games. Last year, we won the SEC because we won most of our close games."

According to Mainieri, there are four candidates to be the closer - Nick Rumbelow and Chris Cotton, who were set-up guys a year ago, Kurt McCune, who has been starter for most of the past two years, and junior college transfer Will LaMarche. The No. 3 starting job is wide open.

The right side of the infield will have Katz at first base and JaCoby Jones at second base. Ty Ross will be the catcher, while Rhymes will be the left fielder. Mainieri must settle upon two starting outfielders.

There are four candidates - Chris Sciambra, freshmen Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird and junior college transfer Sean McMullen. All are lefthanded hitters and all have good speed.

"There are two additions to our offense," Mainieri said. "From the get-go, Alex Bregman will be a vital player. He will bat in the third hole and be our starting shortstop. We are putting a lot on him as a true freshman. I think he can handle it.

"Then, we had a shortage of left-handed bats last year. Now, we have four guys. Two will be our center fielder and right fielder and a third may be our DH. This team will be more balanced offensively than last year's team. There were two or three spots in the lineup last year not at the level we want it to be."

Mainieri didn't hesitate to name three juniors as individual who need to have good seasons - Jones, Ross and Eades.

"It's time for Jones and Ross to emerge as everyday players," Mainieri said. "What are they waiting for? I expect them to be drafted this year. If they take it to another level, that can be a difference for our team.

"Eades is in the same category as Jones and Ross. Those guys are what major leaguers look like. Eades has all it takes to be a great pitcher along the same lines as Gausman, (Anthony) Ranaudo and (Louis) Coleman. It's time for him to take it to another level."


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