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June 7, 2013

Unheralded performers

Before the start of LSU's 2013 baseball season, coach Paul Mainieri identified two position players whose performances were crucial if the team was going to have success.

Second baseman JaCoby Jones and catcher Ty Ross were preparing to start their third season for the Tigers. Both were in the lineup as freshmen and both were expected to be high draft choices in June.

Neither player has enjoyed an all-star caliber season although Jones was a second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection. But, Mainieri is more than satisfied with what he has received from his two juniors who are projected to go in the major league baseball draft Friday.

"They didn't hit .400 or hit 20 home runs," Mainieri said. "But, they've played great defense. There is not a better player at their positions than they are defensively. They are big-leaguers on defense.

"Then, Jones has had some big hits for us and Ross has had some big hits for us. Ross has won games for this team with his hits. Both are very critical players to this team."

Jones and Ross have spent most of the season batting in the bottom third of the order. It has been a challenging offensive year for both guys. At the end of March, Jones was hitting .188. Despite a benching and a wrist injury since that time, Jones has brought his average up to .283.

Ross' batting average has never been higher than .250 since the first two weeks of the season. For much of late March, he was hitting below .200. Ross will be taking a .211 batting average into Friday's super-regional opening game against Oklahoma at The Box.

"There has been a lot of adversity this year," said Jones, who has made only five errors. "I have had to deal with not doing well. My defense has been okay, but I struggled offensively at the beginning of the year. It has been tough, but I have kept my head up."

Ross acknowledged that his hitting has not been the best, but he has put together some quality at-bats.

"My average is not where it should be," said Ross, who hasn't made an error and has thrown out 18 potential base-stealers in 50 attempts. "I have been tested with an up-and-down season at the plate. But, I have always been a leader behind the plate."

Ross, who has started 158 games in his LSU career, has a very mediocre .243 batting average with seven homers and 90 runs batted in. But, Ross is adamant that he is a better player and person than the one who arrived in Baton Rouge in August of 2010.

"The biggest thing is that you become more mature from year to year," Ross said. "First, you become a better player because of the reps. I have started three years and two years in the Cape (Cod League). I have learned the game better. I am more mature not just as a baseball player, but as a man in general.

"I show more maturity with how I react after an out. I now realize that there will always be another at-bat. I have stayed at an even keel throughout the whole season."

Jones has battled lack of maturity throughout his time with the Tigers. Coming from a small high school in Mississippi, Jones rarely experienced failure. He had to learn how to handle the lack of success for the first time in his baseball life.

"In my freshman year, I would get mad all the time when I struggled," said Jones, who has a .289 career batting average. "Even last year, that happened. This year, I am more mature. I didn't get down on myself."

Jones' old personality surfaced during the Alabama series in late April. After sitting out the Friday game due to illness, Jones had three hits in the Saturday game. But, he was nonchalant in the field and at the plate Sunday. Mainieri took him out of the game and kept him out of the starting lineup against Tulane.

"Coach (Mainieri) told me to keep my head up," Jones said. "He wanted me to play hard every day. My old self started to come out that weekend. It was good for me to learn that the game could be taken away from me at any time.

Since that series in Tuscaloosa, Jones has raised his batting average 40 points. But, there was another issue for him - a wrist injury which kept him out of the lineup for the Ole Miss series and the SEC tournament. Jones returned to the lineup in last week's regional and had just two hits.

"It was tough not playing against Ole Miss or in the SEC tournament," Jones said. "But, right now I feel really good. My wrist feels good. My swing feels good. I could have had a better year, but it is what it is."

Ross has delivered key hits time and again this season. He credits his experience for helping him come through with timely hits.

"I have been here three years and I have come up in clutch situations a lot," Ross said. "I understand the game better and what pitchers are trying to do. I have the highest number of quality at-bats on the team - whether it's a walk, a bunt or moving a runner over. I try to have consistent at-bats to help the team."

Friday will be a huge day for both Jones and Ross. Not only does the super-regional series against Oklahoma begin that night, but rounds three through ten of the major league draft will be held during the day. Both guys are ready to handle the stress associated with the two different situations.

"I can't control what happens in the draft," Ross said. "I am just going to play hard baseball Friday night. I need to be the backstop for (pitcher) Aaron Nola Friday. That's what I am most concerned about."

Jones, who could go as early as the fourth round, has a similar opinion about what's going to take place Friday.

"I am not worried about the draft," Jones said. "When my name is called, it's called. I am focusing on Oklahoma right now."



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