With A Week To Simmer Down, Thoughts On Paul Mainieri And LSU Baseball

It’s been a week since LSU Baseball’s ignominious 12-2 flameout at the hands of the University of Houston in a regional the Tigers hosted, but if you circulate around Baton Rouge you’ll still hear griping and growling about the sudden collapse of what just a couple of days before was looking like a season destined for glory.

Head coach Paul Mainieri had his team peaking, it appeared, just at the right time. The Tigers had played themselves, in the final week of the regular season and the SEC Tournament, from likely traveling to a regional elsewhere into the No. 8 national seed and were riding a 10-game winning streak into a regional final against Houston – a team they’d already beaten once.

And for seven innings everything was going according to plan. LSU held a 4-0 lead and with just six outs left it looked for all the world like Mainieri had his team ready to advance to a Super Regional against a team they’d be even more heavily favored against than they were with Houston.

But from there, disaster struck. Mainieri had already pulled his starting pitcher, left-hander Kyle Bouman, despite the junior’s two-hit shutout in progress, in favor of senior righty Kurt McCune. And after McCune survived the seventh inning without giving up a run Mainieri left him in to pitch to four batters in the eighth, each one reaching base. By the time the inning was over Houston had tied the score, and the Cougars ultimately won the game with a run in extra innings. Closer Joe Broussard ended up taking the loss in the game after coming on to pitch the ninth; in the 11th Houston managed the winning run off him.

The next night, Mainieri’s pitching staff completely fell apart. LSU was down 9-2 after the third inning on the way to a season-ending 12-2 debacle.

The nightmare of last Monday night’s game was made even worse by the fact that starter Alden Cartwright, a freshman who had delivered solid performances at times in the second half of the season – including four shutout innings and only one hit allowed in a start against Florida in the SEC Championship Game eight days earlier – had promised LSU fans a victory after Sunday night’s collapsed.

Cartwright’s braggadocio was probably the single worst insult to the Baseball Gods since Eddie Harris stole Jobu’s rum…

…and his start worked out precisely as Harris’ potable pilferage did. Cartwright didn’t even record an out in the first inning, hitting one batter and walking two before a disgusted Mainieri lifted him for fellow freshman right-hander Parker Bugg – who imploded in his own right in the third inning. When junior righty Brady Domangue came out to throw gasoline on the fire in relief of Bugg, giving up three more runs without benefit of an out, it was all over but the shouting.

Properly understood, last Monday’s game wasn’t the issue. It was Mainieri’s boneheaded use of pitchers the previous night, which the coach himself allowed was a source for regret, which cost the regional. LSU was out of pitching on Monday and would have had to play old-fashioned Gorilla Ball to win.

The critics point to an arbitrary six-inning cap on Bouman, which in retrospect looks stupid. The left-hander had thrown just 64 pitches and had worked only four batters over the minimum; the idea he was spent after that much time on the mound and with the momentum he had going is simply senseless. Bouman had thrown 90 pitches the previous week in an 11-1 stomping of Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, though he’d worked the same six innings. With a 4-0 lead and a chance to sew up a regional and move on, it’s hard to justify not leaving him in at least until he got himself in trouble.

There is also the question of Mainieri failing to bring Broussard in for the eighth inning or at least having him onto the mound at the first sign of McCune’s trouble. Broussard is certainly capable of working more than one inning in relief; after all, Sunday night he did throw three innings – and in the first two he was dominant.

Once that Sunday game was lost, Monday was almost a foregone conclusion as things went.

And here, Mainieri has both an excuse and some blame. Because LSU was out of pitching for several reasons last Monday.

The most obvious reason was that his 2013 Sunday starter, junior Cody Glenn, had fallen apart during the season and wasn’t even on the roster at the end. Glenn inexplicably went from 7-3 with a 2.68 ERA, though he’d become a discipline problem at the end of the season, to a rancid 1-1 with a 5.51 ERA this year. And with his implosion, LSU lost a weekend starter – forcing Mainieri to take chances with pitchers perhaps unready for the roles he suddenly needed them to assume. With a productive Glenn duplicating his 2013 form, LSU would have had a solid four-man starting rotation of Aaron Nola, the No. 7 pick in last week’s MLB Draft, Freshman All-American Jared Poche’, Bouman and Glenn – and not necessarily in that order. Without him, and with Bouman dealing with an ankle injury at midseason which took him out of the rotation until the very end of the season, a piece was missing.

Mainieri’s critics also point to a pair of decisions Mainieri made which look painful in retrospect. Namely, in last night’s super regional contest in Lafayette right-hander Carson Baranik of UL-Lafayette and lefty Christian Trent of Ole Miss both turned in strong pitching performances. That’s painful to LSU fans because both pitchers spent their freshman seasons at LSU before being run off by Mainieri. Both were drafted over the weekend, and there is no question that either or both could have been major cogs in the Tiger pitching staff had Mainieri found a way to hold on to them. Another promising pitcher, sophomore right-hander Mitch Sewald, left school after being arrested in the fall for DWI and will spend next year at LSU-Eunice. Still another, heralded right-hander Dylan Williams, got mixed up in gun and drug charges for which he was ultimately acquitted and spent this season at a junior college in Georgia rather than on the LSU roster.

But while the coach is being attacked, and justifiably so, for decisions both recent and ancient as they affected his pitching depth, he has the defense of bad fortune if the whole picture is to be viewed. Because while Glenn fell apart on him and the attrition of Baranik and Trent may have been self-inflicted wounds, LSU also had no less than five pitchers on the shelf for the entire season. Any help from those five pitchers at all and perhaps he ends up with far better options during the regional struggle with Houston.

Not having Russell Reynolds particularly hurt. The sophomore right-hander from Baton Rouge had been outstanding as a freshman in 2013 before a torn labrum necessitated surgery. Reynolds was 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA as a freshman, giving up an opponents’ batting average of only .176 prior to the injury, and in the start before he got that bum shoulder he delivered a gem – limiting Tulane to one unearned run on four hits in seven innings with one walk and four strikeouts on March 26. That came after a five inning shutout performance against Northwestern State the previous week. Reynolds had been talked about as a likely weekend starter this year before the injury; once he had to go under the knife he wasn’t going to be available until the very end of this season if at all, and a responsible decision was made to redshirt him. Amid the final-game carnage against Houston, Mainieri had to be wistful about whether pouring Reynolds into the mix this season even if most of it would have been wasted might have been a ticket for an advance to the next round.

But Reynolds wasn’t the only possible weekend starter denied to Mainieri by injury. Fellow sophomore righty Hunter Newman had finished the 2013 season on a roll, finishing 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA; in 24.2 innings Newman gave up just 13 hits for a .160 opponents’ batting average. And what’s more, Newman had worked 12 straight shutout innings in his final three appearances. As late as last fall Newman was talked about as a likely weekend starter, but then he developed a sore shoulder during preseason workouts and was scratched.

And worse, three promising freshmen were also redshirts this year – left-hander Christian Pelaez, 6-5 righty fireballer Troy Whitty and 6-2 righty Jesse Stallings. Stallings was hurt during his senior season at Grant High School, while Whitty suffered a torn meniscus in preseason and had surgery in February.

That makes no less than 10 pitchers who could have been productive members of the pitching staff that Mainieri didn’t have against Houston, and therefore while he may have been guilty of poor utilization of what he had he can at least argue in his own defense that if he’d had one or two of the 10 it might have made him a smarter coach.

We had to piece it together,” said the coach over the weekend. “We didn’t have three starters. That was because we lost five or six pitchers.” Given that, it’s worth noting that LSU had a school-record 17 shutouts this season even without a full pitching staff and finished in the top 20 nationally in team ERA. While much of that was due to Nola’s efforts, the pieced-together pitching staff actually did fairly well…until it didn’t.

All that said, Mainieri’s luck seemed to change from early last week to early this week, because the Major League Draft washed over his program without doing much damage. Nola went seventh overall and catcher/first baseman Tyler Moore was taken in the sixth round, and both have played their final game in an LSU uniform. But Broussard, a junior like Nola and Moore, lasted until the 15th round, which wasn’t supposed to happen. And while it’s still fairly likely he’ll sign a pro contract, the righty hurler says he’s not out the door just yet.

It’s really up in the air, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” Broussard said. “I don’t really know what their offer is, so I don’t have a clue either way.”

There was no other damage to the LSU roster in the draft, as seniors Nate Fury and Sean McMullen were taken in the later rounds. That means Bouman, sophomore outfielder Mark Laird, junior catcher Kade Scivique and junior second baseman Conner Hale are all going to be back next year.

In the event Broussard were to come back, that would give Mainieri seven returning pitchers who worked 20 or more innings this year with ERA’s of 3.10 or below. That, plus the five returnees coming off injuries, would give him the basis for a far deeper pitching staff than last year. Add to that mix six returning position players – Laird, Hale, Scivique, shortstop Alex Bregman, center fielder Andrew Stevenson and left fielder Jake Fraley – all hit .291 or better in 120 or more at bats, not to mention four others – catcher Chris Chinea, infielders Danny Zardon and Kramer Robertson and outfielder Chris Sciambra – who all saw significant action this year.

That’s a strong returning roster to draw from, but things got much better for Mainieri with respect to what the draft did for his recruiting class. He’s in position to bring 11 of his 12 signees to school, which is an incredible number considering that six of them – left-handed pitchers Mac Marshall and Jake Latz, right-handed pitcher Jake Godfrey, catcher Mike Papierski and infielder Grayson Byrd – were all drafted and two others – right-handed pitcher Alex Lange and infielder Greg Deichmann – were rated as Top 200 prospects by MLB.com prior to the draft. The only signee not expected to make it to Baton Rouge is first baseman Bobby Bradley, a slugger from Gulfport, Mississippi who was drafted in the 3rd round and is sure to sign.

With Marshall, Latz, Lange and Godfrey joining a pitching staff that already has a decent core of quality arms and an intriguing group of returnees from injuries, the only real question is where the Friday-night superstar will come from. Poche put up terrific numbers as a freshman this year, but he’s more of a lunch-pail type rather than an overpowering pitcher like Nola and therefore Mainieri might prefer to use him on Saturdays or Sundays. Should Broussard return Mainieri might well offer him a chance to pitch on Fridays given his eye-popping numbers as a closer this year (3-2, 1.05 ERA, 37 strikeouts in 34 innings and an opponents’ batting average of only .164).

But if not, Mac Marshall was considered a potential first-day draft pick (MLB.com rated him the No. 66 prospect in the draft) and would have been one but for a signing figure which scared off most major-league teams and drove his draft stock down to the 21st round. Marshall is a talent in the Nola-Kevin Gausman-Ryan Eades-Anthony Ranaudo class; there aren’t many left-handers with 93 MPH fastballs and command of four different pitches like he has. He could well be an ace-quality pitcher. Ditto for Latz, who wasn’t considered a Top 200 prospect but nevertheless was the highest-drafted of the four pitchers when Toronto drafted him in the 11th round. Mainieri said Latz was offered a million dollars earlier in the draft but said he wasn’t interested and was therefore passed on before the Blue Jays decided they’d draft him to see if there was a chance of signing him. Latz, after all, went all the way until the end of May before giving up an earned run for his high school team outside of Chicago. Godfrey, who lasted until the 21st round, was rated No. 125 on MLB.com’s list, and Lange, the Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year, was rated No. 159 before going undrafted because it wasn’t likely he could be signed.

It wouldn’t be an outrageous statement to say Mainieri hasn’t had this highly-rated a crop of pitchers come to campus since he’s been at LSU.

And with Deichmann, MLB.com’s No. 137 prospect who wasn’t drafted because like Lange he told the pro clubs not to bother with him, Papierski (rated No. 194 by MLB.com), who went to Toronto in the 16th round, infielder Grayson Byrd (the 39th round pick of the Atlanta Braves) and undrafted outfielder Beau Jordan of Lake Charles Barbe who’s being considered by MaxPreps as their national High School Player of the Year, Mainieri has an equal amount of talent arriving in the field.

Next year’s LSU team will be the most talented club Mainieri has had since he won the national championship in 2009.

And that’s a good thing, because 2009 was the last time Mainieri was able to win a game in Omaha. Since that time he’s only been to the College World Series once, in 2013, and that team suffered a discouraging two-and-barbecue finish. With regional-round losses to Stony Brook and Houston wrapped around the Omaha flameout, Mainieri has delivered disappointing finishes to otherwise terrific seasons in each of the past three seasons.

If 2015 isn’t the season Mainieri is able to reverse the trend and deliver a strong finish to include wins at the CWS, if not an outright title, he’s going to hear a lot more grumbling from the fans and, as unreasonable as it might sound, his seat might begin to heat up. Tiger baseball fans aren’t used to regional flameouts; they want national titles. And while there is still faith – and justifiable optimism – in Mainieri and his program, there is also growing unease.

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