LSU coach Paul Mainieri met with reporters Friday during the Tigers' annual Media Day activities prior to the squad's first practice of the spring semester. LSU, ranked No. 8 in the Baseball America preseason poll, will open the 2012 season at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 17 versus the Air Force Academy in Alex Box Stadium. Following are Mainieri quotes from Friday's press conference:
LSU Head Coach Paul Mainieri
"It is hard to believe that it is already my sixth year here at LSU. It feels like I got here just yesterday. It has been a wonderful ride for the first five, and let's hope we can have a lot of fun this year. I do think we have a good chance of having an excellent team. We are 21 days from opening day and have a full slate scheduled for practice today. We have a pregame batting practice and then we are going to play a six-inning scrimmage game. Kevin Gausman will be pitching today. It will be a good workout and will get us kicked off for the next 20 days as we prepare for the Air Force Academy.
"This is an exciting time. We're really excited about this season. A lot has already been made about our pitching staff; certainly our pitching staff is going to have to lead the way for us this year, and I think it will. A lot has also been made about our season in 2011. I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about that, but just a couple of thoughts about that. Obviously it ended in a very disappointing way without an invite to the NCAA Tournament. It was a very disappointing time when that happened, but it was kind of a mixture of emotions because our team was playing really well at the end of the year. We were 12-3 in our last 15 games. That was part of the reason I was so upset about us not getting a bid because the NCAA Championship Manual clearly states that how you perform in your last 15 games should play a major factor in whether you receive a bid. Certainly not the only factor, but the way our team was playing at the end of the year I thought we were playing as well as anyone in the country. We had a very successful weekend in Starkville, and then you saw Mississippi State sweep through the Atlanta Regional and gave Florida all they could handle in the Super Regional. I felt strongly that had we been given the opportunity, we could have made some noise and possibly made it back to Omaha. I still feel that we would have.
"I know that it's water under the bridge, but the reason I bring it up is because I do believe how we finished the season has given our team a lot of confidence going into this year. Other than losing Mikie Mahtook and a couple of other guys, we virtually have the entire team back from last year. Obviously the loss of Mikie is a great loss. He is one of the great players in the history of LSU baseball. At the same time our team relied so much on Mikie to come through with the big hit or the big play, not to say the rest of the guys stood around to watch him play all the time, but there was a sense that 'if I didn't come through, then Mikie will.' Now I think the team will have more of a feeling that they are all going to contribute and it is a responsibility that we are equally going to share in our offensive and defensive team.
"Let's go back to the pitching. I mentioned earlier that a lot has been made about pitching and I have made some bold comments about our pitching already. I think the boldness of my comments is very well placed. Last year at the end of the year when we starting three freshmen against the SEC that it might have been the first time, at least in modern day LSU baseball history, that it had happened. It didn't happen because we needed someone to pitch. Those three guys were outstanding. You look at most of the prognostications on Kevin Gausman. He has a chance of being a very high draft choice. He is a draft-eligible sophomore. I also believe that Ryan Eades a year from now will be in that same situation I just spoke of. Kurt McCune, who was our Friday night starter for most of the year and a Freshman All-American went 7-4 and certainly rounds us out with an outstanding weekend rotation. I would not change that rotation honestly for anyone else's in the country.
"I felt that last year our Achilles' heel really resided with our bullpen. It has been well documented that we lost seven games in conference play by one run and two other games by two runs. I tell our team every year that your season will be defined by how you do in those one and two-run games. Unfortunately last year that definition was not a good one. In previous years it was an outstanding one. The way you win those one-run games is through clutch hitting and defense, but also the bullpen plays a major role in that. Last year we blew three ninth- inning leads in SEC play. Had we done nothing more than to hold onto those three ninth-inning leads last year, we would have won the SEC West by two games and maybe had an RPI of about 15. We certainly would have hosted the NCAA Tournament. It was a great fall from what could have been to what happened. Our main focus has been to shore up that bullpen. Obviously you do that with depth. We have a good chance to do that. The three top bullpen guys coming out of fall practice as we go into spring would be Nick Rumbelow, Aaron Nola, a freshman from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, and Nick Goody, a guy I recruited to step in and be our closer. He may very well be, but he has some stiff competition with Rumbelow and Nola.
On the line up as of today...
"I would say that if the season were to start today that Tyler Hanover would lead off. We hit Casey Yocom second all fall and he did a great job there, but we didn't have Raph Rhymes during the fall either. I would probably hit Rhymes second. Mason Katz will bat third. I would have Jackson Slaid in the four-hole spot, JaCoby Jones hitting fifth, Austin Nola hitting sixth, Ty Ross seventh, whoever the DH is or the guy that wins the job at eighth and finish up with Yocom in the nine hole. Of course it is very early and a lot of things can play out over the course of the next three weeks. The key to our season is how Hanover can handle that leadoff spot. Last year he walked more than he had ever done in his career. For us to have a good team with him as the leadoff hitter, he is going to have to have his best career offensively. If he doesn't handle that well, than we will have to change our approach there."
On the SEC...
"This may be the best that it has ever been. Baseball America's poll came out the other day and you saw that we were the eighth-ranked team in the country. A friend called me from up north and said 'Wow, that is great you are the eighth best team in the country.' Another way to look at that is we are the fourth-best in the SEC. Among the top 11 teams, six of the teams were in the SEC and seven if you include Texas A&M, who is coming next year. That is just mind-boggling that one league could have so much talent and so many good teams. On the road, we will be playing the number one, three and 22nd teams. At home we will be playing the number four, 10 and 11 teams. Some of the other teams might end up being ranked. That is 18 of the 30 games that we just described. That does not even describe Mississippi State who was a hair away from going to Omaha last year with Florida tied in the ninth inning of the last game of the Super Regional. That does not even mention Auburn who we will be playing on the road or Alabama who we had a tough time with last year. The league is just amazing. The way you approach it is to take one series at a time and one game at a time.
On non-conference opponents and the Air Force Academy...
"We start off against the United States Air Force Academy, where I coached for six years and also have Notre Dame coming in where I coached for 12 years. We also have Michigan who has traditionally had a strong program, Appalachian State is an up-and-coming team and we've played an Ivy League school every year I've been here, so Dartmouth is coming in. Last year opening night was a very special night because if you recall the story line of the Wake Forest baseball coach (Tom Walter) who had donated his kidney to a player, and that player by the way is back playing now and it is an amazing story, but I remember out in the media we talked about hopefully giving a great reception to that coach when he was introduced on opening night. What a sight that was when 11,000 people stood as one and saluted that coach for his unselfish act. This year we open up with the United State Air Force Academy, and their coach Mike Kazlausky was a sophomore, junior and senior during my first years there. When he graduated he went to pilot training and went on to become a C-17 pilot. He flew for 20 years in the Air Force including many missions in combat. He had over 3,000 flight hours. He is a legitimate United States hero and now he has been made the baseball coach at his alma mater. I love him dearly and he is one of the special people in my life. I really hope that the fans will greet him the same way they greeted the Wake Forest coach last year. Obviously acknowledge his sacrifice and commitment for us. In fact, I hope we do that for the entire team because those kids in the Air Force Academy are going into a life of service where they will be the custodians for our way of life. They make a lot of sacrifices. I can tell you the Air Force Academy is not an easy institution to work your way through in four years. I think LSU fans are different than anywhere else in the country, I'm not saying we are the only patriotic people in the country, but our fans acknowledge those kinds of things. I hope that when Mike Kazlausky is introduced on opening day that our stands will erupt and show him an appreciation for his service to our country. I hope to treat the academy cadets the same way."