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March 31, 2014

Experienced players must contribute

It was no secret that LSU was going to put an inexperienced baseball team on the field for the 2014 season.

Just seven players, who started games in last June's College World Series, were returning. First, there were five everyday performers - shortstop Alex Bregman, third baseman Christian Ibarra, centerfielder Andrew Stevenson, rightfielder Mark Laird and designated hitter Sean McMullen.

Then, there were two members of the weekend rotation - Aaron Nola and Cody Glenn. None of the Tigers primary relief pitchers from a season ago was back.

LSU has gotten off to a slow start in the first three weekends of the Southeastern Conference schedule. The Tigers lost two of three games at Vanderbilt and dropped all three games at Florida. In between those two series, LSU posted two wins and a tie at The Box against Georgia.

Entering this weekend's series at home against Mississippi State, the Tigers find themselves tied with Georgia for 11th place in the overall league standings with a 3-5-1 record - their worst start in three seasons.

Offense has been a major problem in the nine SEC games with LSU hitters batting a very low .212. The Tigers scored more than four runs for the first in the series finale against Florida. But, on that day, the pitching struggled in an 11-7 LSU defeat.

Any team needs major production from its experienced players. Such a situation is not occurring with the Tigers and, hence, their poor SEC record. Of the seven returnees, only Nola has done his job. Nola has given up just three runs in three starts. Unfortunately, he lost 2-1 to the Gators last Friday.

Glenn, who was given the start in LSU's elimination game against North Carolina in the CWS over Ryan Eades, has made just one appearance in a league game. Glenn allowed one run and two hits with one walk in 1.2 innings at Vanderbilt. The Tigers coaches have no confidence in Glenn.

Much discussion regarding Bregman's hitting slump has taken place. Bregman, who went hitless in the Florida series, is 3-for-35 in the nine SEC games. But, the other four returnees are also not being productive. Ibarra (.269) is the only one of the five hitting higher than .250 in conference play.

Like Bregman (.086), Stevenson (.148) is hitting lower than .200. McMullen and Laird are hitting .250 and .229, respectively, in the nine league games. Last weekend in Gainesville, the five players were a combined 6-for-52.

"Our veterans are dotted with guys hitting .260," said coach Paul Mainieri, referring to overall batting averages. "All of them are hitting between .260 and .270. Those guys are trying to do their best, but they need to step up and be leaders."

Mainieri is confident LSU will right the ship. His teams have bounced back from bad stretches in the past. Mainieri's 2002 Notre Dame team started 9-11. That squad ended up in the College World Series. Then, there was Mainieri's 2008 Tigers team which was 6-11-1 after six weeks in the SEC.

LSU embarked on a 23-game winning streak which lasted until the super-regional. The Tigers, who won their last 12 SEC games, won the Western Division title and advanced to the College World Series.

"It's an attitude you have to have," Mainieri said. "I explained to the players that the month of April for some teams represents the dog days. Other teams catch fire in April.

"I am proud of our teams that we've usually finished strong. The only way to get out of this is to work. I am going to show faith in the players and then they have to go out there and play."

Mainieri's 2010 team was the only one at LSU that played poorly down the stretch. That Tigers team won the SEC tournament, but was sent to a regional at UCLA. Mainieri acknowledged that Bregman has to get untracked for LSU to start winning games.

"Alex has struggled," Mainieri said. "It is somewhat mechanical. It is somewhat mental. He is somewhat pressing. But, the kid has no quit in him.

"I worked with Alex today and we made some mechanical adjustment in his swing. He hit some balls in the stands. He hadn't done that in BP (batting practice) all year. I am not blaming him solely. But, it is obvious that we are counting on him a lot."

The SEC schedule has a lot to do with LSU's slow start. The four teams who are tied for first place in the conference at 6-3 - Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina - all have had two series at home. Mainieri admitted that he was worried when he saw the Tigers' early schedule.

"I cringed a little bit when I saw our schedule," Mainieri said. "Our first two road series were at Vanderbilt and Florida, traditionally the two toughest places for us to go to during my tenure. I felt if we won just one game at each place and be 5-4 or even 4-5, we'd be in good position."

LSU has a 1-8 record in games at Vanderbilt since Mainieri has been coach. The Tigers are 3-9 in games at Florida in the same period of time. LSU, which plays host to McNeese State on Wednesday, hopes to make up ground the next two weeks with home series against Mississippi State and Arkansas.

"Everything is still in front of us," Mainieri said. "We have areas of concern. Every team does. The bottom line last week is we lost three games. Florida played better than we did, a little bit better. If we would have pulled one out at Florida, we would be in the catbird's seat.

"We are staring up at the rest of the league right now. But, nobody is down. There are seven weeks to go and we are excited to have the next two weeks at home."



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