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February 25, 2014

Top-ranked Tigers to finally get test

As expected, LSU has opened its season with a 7-0 record.

The Tigers were rewarded Monday with a No. 1 national ranking from Collegiate Baseball. For the fifth time in Paul Mainieri's eight seasons as coach, his LSU squad has risen to the top spot in one of the many college baseball polls.

The Tigers are well-regarded in two of the other latest national rankings - No. 3 by National Collegiate Baseball Writers and No. 7 by Baseball America. LSU's schedule prior to it Southeastern Conference opener is far from challenging.

The Tigers will play 18 games against 13 teams in their pre-conference slate. Only two of those schools have a winning record at this time. LSU defeated 5-2 Southeastern Louisiana last week.

On Tuesday night, 7-1 Louisiana-Lafayette comes to The Box. The Ragin' Cajuns, who are ranked as high as No. 10 in the national rankings, lost to the Tigers in the championship round of the Baton Rouge Regional last June. Most of the main contributors of that UL-Lafayette team are back.

"It is perfect timing to play ULL," Mainieri said. "There is no question ULL is the best team we will have faced up to this point of the season. They are a veteran team with a very powerful lineup. You better make good pitches against them. It will be a great atmosphere, just what you want to put your team in."

Since the meeting between the Tigers and the Cajuns is taking place in the midweek, neither team will use its top starter. However, both teams have saved a weekend starter for the Tuesday night contest.

"This game is just what we need," Mainieri said. "It will be a great test for (starting pitcher) Cody Glenn. It will be a great test for the whole team."

Mainieri was quite happy with his team being ranked No. 1 in the country although that fact is meaningless at this time.

"I am really proud of (No. 1 ranking)," Mainieri said. "Getting a midseason No. 1 ranking is one of our goals. Obviously, it doesn't mean anything, but I want the players to feel like they are the No. 1 team in the country.

"It is not a bad thing when every newspaper publishes the poll and LSU is No. 1. When LSU takes the field (Tuesday), it will take it as the No. 1 team in the country. That puts pressure on the players. But, at LSU, there is a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations."

The schedule was set up for a team with few returning starters from last year's College World Series team. Three of the five returning everyday starters are hitting higher than .365 - Alex Bregman at .409 and Sean McMullen and Andrew Stevenson at .368.

Nola has yet to allow a run in his two starts against UNO and Virginia Tech. Nola has allowed four hits with one walk and 14 strikeouts. Glenn, a returning weekend starter, gave up one earned run in six innings at SLU.

None of the Tigers' other top pitchers from 2013 is back. But, pitching coach Alan Dunn has done a great job in developing some new hurlers in the early-going.

"Our starting pitching has been fantastic," Mainieri said. "I think we've walked one batter (actually two). But, I am most pleased with the bullpen. I expected the starters to do what they did. I didn't know what we were going to get from our bullpen."

The Tigers bullpen has been nearly perfect. Brady Domangue is the one relief pitcher to allow a run. The other relievers have allowed ten hits with five walks and 23 strikeouts in 19.1 innings. Kurt McCune, Joe Broussard and Parker Bugg have established themselves as the top relievers.

Mainieri has juggled his everyday lineup throughout the first ten days of the season. Bregman is the only player who has started every game. All but two of the position players - freshmen outfielders Jarret DeHart and Cade Stone - have made a start.

Both Christian Ibarra and Danny Zardon have made starts at third base. Both Connor Hale and Kramer Robertson have started at second base. Six players have started a game in the outfield - McMullen, Mark Laird, Stevenson, Jared Foster, Chris Sciambra and Jake Fraley.

As had been planned, Mainieri has rotated three individuals at catcher and first base - Chris Chinea, Tyler Moore and Kade Scivicque. Dakota Dean received one start at designated hitter. Mainieri would like to settle on full-time starters at six or seven positions.

"When you have hard decisions to make because the options are all good, that's what you dream of as a coach," Mainieri said. "How can kids grow if you are afraid to run them out there? The greatest quality of a coach is knowing the players' strengths and limitations, when to use them in what capacity."

Following Tuesday's game against UL-Lafayette, Yale will come to The Box for its first three games of the year this weekend. But, a big-time opponent like the Cajuns is on Mainieri's mind.

"I am looking forward to this game," Mainieri said. "I have respect for (UL-Lafayette coach) Tony (Robichaux) and the way they play the game. The spotlight would be on us if this were a SEC game. We may still have the spotlight on us. The stage is set for an outstanding ball game."


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