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Sometime between now and the start of the 2012 season, LSU coach Paul Mainieri hopes his Tigers learn how to finish the job.
Chances are good the Tigers would’ve experienced a wealth of success last season had they had that important trait. They lost several one-loss and two-loss games, and failed to reach the NCAA tournament despite compiling an overall record of 36-20.
Not reaching the NCAA postseason has been a hot topic for Mainieri for months, and it’s something he believes will have his players motivated more than ever the next few months.
Several important topics surround the Tigers this offseason. They have a new pitching coach in Alan Dunn and sophomore pitchers Kevin Gausman, Kurt McCune and Ryan Eades are expected to formulate one of the nation’s elite rotations next spring.
Mainieri discussed everything about his program as the offseason continues.
Q: The 2011 season ended without an NCAA postseason appearance. What are your thoughts on the 2011 campaign as a whole?
Mainieri: I knew going into the season that 2011 could very much be a transition year. From our first group of kids we recruited, it culminated with a national title in 2009. We had quite a few of those guys left in 2012 and felt like it was kind an end of an era after those guys left. Last year was going to be a transition year with the ushering in a new era, so to speak. I thought we did quite a few good things last year, sweeping Fullerton early in the year and things like that. Then, in the SEC opening series against Florida, we played so well that weekend with all three games having the ability to go either way. That series just kind of knocked the wind out of our sails with such a young team. That shook their confidence to win close games in a season that was defined by close games. I thought we played very well the last month of the season, finishing 12-3 in our last 15 conference games with everything coming together. It’s crazy because we were one win away from second place in the SEC West and two wins from winning the SEC West title. With that said, there are no trophies given for just being close to something, so we’re still very disappointed. I know one thing; we won’t take success for granted at LSU moving forward. Last season makes you hungry, it definitely increases your appetite.
Q: You talked about some of the issues in 2011, such as not winning close games. But overall, which areas do you pinpoint as the main problems this past season?
Mainieri: Quite frankly, I just don’t think we pitched well enough throughout the spring. Our pitching staff was kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of situation. We started three freshmen in the weekend rotation by the end of the season, and I think that is something that bodes well for the 2012 campaign and beyond. Kevin Berry and Matty Ott had moments, but I just didn’t think we got the job done out of the bullpen. It wasn’t just starting pitching at times. We lost seven one-run games and two two-run games during the season, so it was just a matter of not having a deep enough pitching staff. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the situation. The Big Three in our league – South Carolina, Florida and Vanderbilt – each had ERAs under three last season. Our ERA was 4.21. Obviously offensively we want to be better, but I think everyone’s offensive production was down, with the exception of a couple of teams. I just think a few teams pitched much better than we did.
Q: You were pretty vocal about it at the end of the 2011 season. Do you still feel like LSU should’ve been in the NCAA tournament?
Mainieri: Not putting us in, I didn’t think it was the correct decision. We had an RPI of 22 and 16 teams in the tournament had worse RPIs. People start to harp on little things like road games and what not, but this is what the RPI calculates. If we’re not going to use the RPI as a measuring stock I’m not real sure why we even have it. I’m not sure there’s ever been a team with an RPI of 22 not get a postseason bid, particularly on the heels of what we’ve done the past few seasons. There were times when ninth-place finishers in the Big 12 and ACC have got into the postseason. With that said, the season ended in disappointing fashion without getting invited. Those things happen for a reason.
Q: Does a season like 2011 take an emotional toll on the program, or is it more so just strictly a motivational tool?
Mainieri: I don’t have any doubt our team will come back to school this fall with a tremendous resolve to get things going right again. Our guys were pretty angry at the end of last season and they experienced a lot of tough losses and adversity throughout the campaign. The kids never gave up and played hard until the end of the season. In Starkville, Miss., the final weekend, we really could’ve packed things up and called it a season. Instead, Mississippi State had a lead over us for exactly one pitch the entire weekend. That’s against a team that finished the season in an NCAA Super Regional. We knew it was going to take time, but I thought by the end of last season we had developed into a pretty solid club. Last season reminded me so much of 2008 with how things transpired. The difference is in 2008 we went 12-0 down the stretch in the SEC, where as this go round we went 9-3. That was the difference.
Q: Things are a little different staff-wise with David Grewe gone and Alan Dunn from the Orioles now in charge of the pitching staff. Thoughts on Dunn’s addition?
Mainieri: When the decision was made that we were going to hire another pitching coach, I really wanted to think outside the box a little bit with all of the outstanding arms we have in the program. I also felt like we were really recruiting some good ones, so I wanted to make a splash. It’s one thing to recruit studs, though, and it’s another thing to develop them. That’s where Dunn entered the equation. If we have an opportunity to get someone like Dunn with such a proven track record on development, I thought it would be a huge boost for our program at this point in time to hire Dunn. I talked to some of my friends in professional baseball about Dunn and his name just kept popping up. Since the time I hired him, I’ve probably received 25 calls from people that worked, coached or played with him, saying that his hire was a grand slam. I’ve had some people even say he is the best pitching coach they’ve ever seen at any level. That kind of experience and track record makes you feel like the pitching staff is in pretty good hands.
Q: Speaking of pitching, you have two full-time returning starting pitchers that were freshmen last season in Kevin Gausman and Kurt McCune. Talk about their 2011 campaigns and what they could improve on this fall?
Mainieri: Those two kids definitely could improve. I thought by the end of last season, Gausman was pitching as well as anyone in the SEC. He was simply dominant his last three or four starts of the season, he just needs a little bit more focus. He was the type of guy (last season) that got the first two outs of an inning with ease and proceeded to let up on hitters instead of showing a killer instinct. I think his breaking ball can continue to improve, while his fastball command got better as the season progressed. His changeup also developed. Gausman is now an experienced veteran and I think he’s primed for a huge year. We’ll just see some minor adjustments with him as Dunn works with him this fall. McCune, meanwhile, was such a grinder out there last season. He just needs to tighten up his breaking ball and have a changeup with a little better arm action.
Q: Ryan Eades, another freshman pitcher last season, blossomed at the end of the campaign and is having a fantastic summer. Your thoughts on his progress?
Mainieri: I think he has given up three runs or something like that at the Cape Cod league this summer, so he’s doing pretty great right now. He has a chance to be something really special in 2012. He had to knock a lot of rust off last season. The first time he stepped on the mound during fall workouts he hadn’t been on a mound in probably 15 or 16 months. Obviously when something like that happens you’re going to be a little rusty coming off surgery. We tried to bring him along slowly during the spring and we did for the most part. I definitely could see him making a huge turn this fall and next spring. He pitched a great game against Mississippi State last season and is carrying that success into summer ball. The sky is the limit with him, and honestly, he might end up passing Gausman.
Q: In terms of current players and signees getting drafted in June. How do you feel about some of those guys coming back to school or school for the first time with fall approaching?
Mainieri: I honestly feel like the summer has gone pretty well for us in that regard. We had 14 total players/signees drafted and I think 12 have pretty much decided what they’re going to do. Austin Nola, Tyler Hanover and Raph Rhymes have told me they’re coming back. In terms of signees, it looks like Aaron Nola is coming to school along with some others. I think chances are good we hang on to five recruits and eight total players that were drafted. Having deal with some things the past few years, I’d say we could be in a lot worse position.
Q: As fall workouts near, what are some of your goals for the fall?
Mainieri: I think this fall is going to be very intense for this program. We have to get back to the mindset of having a lot of toughness. That was probably the only thing I was extremely disappointed with in 2011. I don’t think our kids quit at all, and I think they listened and all of those things. However, when it got to the end of games, that’s where your overall toughness and mental toughness came into play. There were several occasions where we didn’t come through in clutch situations. We didn’t make the big plays at the end of games last season, and that needs to change. We have to learn how to finish the job and develop that type of composure. I think we can get that attitude back.
Q: We had LSU in our Eight for Omaha feature for 2012. Do you agree that your team should be expected to be in the College World Series?
Mainieri: Honestly, I felt like had we gotten an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament last season, we could’ve had a great experience and made some noise. Our team was a much better team at the end of last season than it had been the entire spring. With that said, something like that doesn’t deter the confidence of these players. We know we have a great team coming back this fall, but pitching will be the key. If we can drop our ERA from 4.10 to around 2.80 or so, we’ll be right there in the end.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at email@example.com