His ninth season as LSU’s head baseball coach a few days behind him, Paul Mainieri sat down with The Advocate to discuss one of the best regular seasons in program history and a postseason that ended just a couple of games short of the national championship series.
The Tigers finished with the nation’s best record at 54-12, won the Southeastern Conference regular season title and advanced to a 17th College World Series. His team didn’t underachieve, but they did fall short of winning the school’s seventh national title, Mainieri said. That means his expectations were not met.
He detailed his squad’s ultimate undoing – not having a third starting pitcher and enough power arms. He explained how he and his staff are combating the lack of power pitchers and why some schools are able to get power arms easier.
Mainieri suggested that rising sophomores Austin Bain, Jake Godfrey and Doug Norman have potential to be starters, but that they need more experience in the summer and fall, specifically with secondary pitchers.
Part II of our Q&A will be released online Friday. In that, Mainieri details how he might replace seven position starters, including shortstop Alex Bregman, and what he expects from ace Alex Lange in Year 2 in Baton Rouge.
Q: Did this season live up to your expectations?
Mainieri: That’s a tricky question because every year my expectations are to win a national championship. That’s what we go into the season to do. With that said, that’s only happened six times in the illustrious history of LSU baseball.
The absolute, only way you evaluate a season living up to your expectations is if you won the last game of the season and held up the big trophy. About 99.9 percent of the time you’re going to be disappointed and have to say that it didn’t live up to expectations.
I think when you take a step back and think about going into the season what our feelings were … we did say we had a very veteran lineup. We expected to have more underclassmen in the lineup. (Danny) Zardon, Kramer Robertson. As it turns out, (Chris) Sciambra and (Jared) Foster became every day players and replaced those two guys. There were other twists and turns that made that happen so we ended up with an extremely veteran lineup but we still went into it with a very young pitching staff. When you’re counting on an extremely young, freshman oriented pitching staff, that could be disastrous or it could turn out OK. You don’t really know for sure.
If all of the freshmen had pitched like Jake Godfrey, Austin Bain, Doug Norman, then it would have been a mediocre season because those guys had great moments but they had poor moments as well. If all of them had happened like what happened to Jake Latz and Mac Marshall, it would have been a disaster because those guys didn’t pitch for us. Fortunately for us we had one freshman by the name of Alex Lange that far surpassed anybody’s expectations. You can’t expect anybody, much less a true freshman, to go 12-0 with a sub-2 ERA. That’s Aaron Nola as a junior, pitching at that level. Who can expect something like that?
When you add it all together, knowing that you had so many questions with the pitching going in, couple of changes in the lineup … you look at it and say we won an SEC championship, we were a national seed for a fourth straight year, won more games than anybody in the country, swept a regional, swept a super regional after hosting both events. You go to Omaha. You don’t win the national championship but you won a game. Basically finished in the top five in the country. That’s not a bad season. It’s a little bit difficult to say it met your expectations or it didn’t meet your expectations.
I don’t think we underachieved. I don’t think we had a disastrous season at all. I’m very proud of the kids and what they accomplished but, obviously, unless you win the last game of the season you’re never truly satisfied.
Q: You mentioned after the season-ending loss that limitations on your club were exposed. When you look at those limitations and what happened this season, do you change anything about your coaching or recruiting moving forward?
Mainieri: Every team has limitations. Virtually every team. Vanderbilt, it’s kind of hard to find many weaknesses on their team. Most teams have imperfections. I’ve been to Omaha five times – once with Notre Dame and four times with LSU. One time we won it all and one time we went 2 and out. The other three times we lost to the same team both times. We lost to that team, then won a game and then lost to that team again.
You see this happen frequently. So sometimes I think you get to that tournament and the matchup of the team you play just seems to have your number for whatever reason. I’m not saying that it’s the strength of their team exposes the limitations of your team. It’s hard to say what the reasons are. Maybe it’s just the format of the tournament, but it seems so frequently. TCU lost to Vanderbilt twice. To us, TCU looked so great but then Vanderbilt whips them 7-1 the next day.
It’s a strange phenomena that happens out there. Sometimes it’s what bracket you end up in. When we won in 09, Arkansas lost to us twice.
I think any season, whatever level you play at, it’s incumbent that you evaluate yourself. When I say yourself, I mean us as coaches. I’m talking about our program. You do a self-evaluation and say, ‘How can we do business better?’
There are some things I think we have to do better. Offensively, I think we need to be more productive when we have a runner at third base with less than two outs. We became a very aggressive team this year. Much more of a free-swinging team, hunt fastballs, hit home runs, hit extra-base hits, hit for a high average, got a lot of hits. But it was also, in the last six or seven years, probably the poorest team we had in scoring runners from third base with less than two outs. Maybe that’s because the pitchers pitch us differently when there’s a runner at third base. Now all of the sudden, they’re throwing off-speed pitches in fastball counts and that type of thing and we need to adjust to that better.
We stole a lot more bases. That’s a positive thing. But we also had some poor base-running reactions to situations because our mindset was so much in stealing bases that we didn’t react to batted balls sometimes the way I think we should have.
I think we need to bunt for hits more frequently, and I think it would be good for us to draw a few more walks.
I think our pitchers need to field their position better. We need to spend more time working with them on having them field their position better. I think we need to hold runners a little bit better.
One thing that’s shown from this tournament is the teams that win are the teams that dominate on the mound. Alex Lange dominates on the mound, we win. Jared Poché did not dominate on the mound and the guys we used in Game 3 did not dominate on the mound. We’re constantly striving to find those kinds of pitchers that are capable of going out there and pitching seven innings for you in a dominating fashion.
We thought we had one in Mac Marshall. We thought we potentially had one in Jake Latz. I think Jake Godfrey, Doug Norman, Austin Bain are perhaps capable of being dominating, but they’re not quite there yet because they were true freshmen that need more time for development.
This summer will help in their development. This fall will help. We’ll see if next year we have somebody that becomes more dominant because of the stuff that they have and their ability to execute their pitchers.
I don’t know if it means you recruit differently. I think you evaluate everything that you do and you try to improve. In order to improve, that’s also assuming that everything you already have is in place and you’re just improving upon what you already have.
The truth of the matter is we’re losing eight of our nine everyday players. So just to build a team that can play defense at that level, hit at that level, steal bases at that level is still going to be a challenge. So before you can improve on those other things you still have to have that foundation. This is the nature of college sports. Every year you have such turnover that you have to start virtually from scratch to build your team and make those improvements.
Q: Your bullpen. You see Vanderbilt and other teams throw these guys out of the pen, and one after another are throwing 96 miles per hour. I hate to sound blunt, but why don’t we see that at LSU?
Mainieri: That’s a really tough question to answer. Circumstances are different at every university that allow certain caliber players to be recruited. It’s not a normal thing for a player to turn down $2 million signing bonuses to attend LSU. But that happens pretty regularly at Vanderbilt. Anybody could speculate to what those reasons are. I’m not going to sit here and say anything. Whatever I say sounds like excuses, and I’m not going to make excuses.
It is what it is. We deal with the circumstances. Some schools have certain things they’re able to do that others are not. Nothing is necessarily equal across the board. You think it is. You think everybody just has 11.7 scholarships, but that’s not exactly the way it is all of the time.
Q: What do you do as a coach to combat that?
Mainieri: I think we are. We finished in the top five in the country. We won more games than anybody in the country. But, no, we don’t have a dozen guys throwing 95 miles an hour like they (Vanderbilt) do. I’ll be the first two admit that. And it’s not like their position players are a bunch of slouches either. They’ve kind of become the standard, but it’s hard to equal that standard when you’re trying to put together a team on 11.7 scholarships to have that same caliber of guy. It’s just very difficult to do. But we’re doing pretty well I think.
Who knows what would have happened if Marshall would have stayed in school and Latz would have been healthy? Maybe we would have successfully combated that. We have a plan. It’s hard for me to sit here and tell you the intricate details of how we recruit. ‘Well, we’re going to give this player this percentage (of a scholarship) and this player this percentage and emphasize this over this.’ I’d be divulging private information about scholarships for individual players.
This is not something you have to even investigate when you’re covering football or basketball because every kid is on a full scholarship. In baseball, it’s not like that. You have to break it up. Some of our best players don’t receive any scholarship at all. What am I going to sit here and do? Tell you that we have to recruit this player for no money so that we have enough money to be able to get this great arm over here. I can’t get that specific with you. But we’re doing the best we can with it, and I think we’re doing pretty well.
I think we had a good team. We didn’t quite match up arms wise with a couple of the teams that finished above us. We’re doing pretty well. We’re fortunate that some of the players we did have came to school. We’re fortunate Lange came to school. We’re fortunate Alex Bregman came to school. Those were as good as anybody. It’s hard to do that on a consistent basis when players are having to …
Let me ask you this: I’m recruiting you. You come from a middle class family. You’re not a 4.0 student with 1400 on your SATs. Your parents aren’t both doctors. I offer you a 50 percent scholarship, which means you have to pay $20,000 to come to LSU. And then some pro team says, ‘If you’ll sign for $1 million, we’ll draft you.’
The market of kids that, for the most part, we’re recruiting for LSU usually take that opportunity to go into professional baseball. The market the Vanderbilt people are recruiting and what they can do for them, to off-set their costs, those kids sometimes turn down a couple of million dollars to go to school. And then you have the 95 miles per hour arm on your pitching staff. A dozen of them. They’ve got a dozen guys that throw 94-95 miles an hour.
There are guys on that staff that you don’t even know who they are and they throw 97-98 miles an hour.
Q: Can anybody in the nation match what Vanderbilt has in regard to the amount of high-velocity pitching? Maybe TCU?
Mainieri: TCU. Private school. A lot of the similar stuff. And then some schools come from states – like Florida, Texas A&M – that are so populated that the more players there (give you) a better chance. With all due respect, we get a lot of good players from the state of Louisiana but the Aaron Nolas of the world don’t grow on trees in the state because the state isn’t as populated. It doesn’t have as many players.
Q: The three freshmen you gave the opportunity to start – Godfrey, Norman, Bain – and it didn’t work out. Why do you think they didn’t work out?
Mainieri: I think it’s the experience level. Sometimes it’s experience. Sometimes it’s the mental makeup of the player. Sometimes it’s where he is on the development of his secondary pitches. Usually what we see is a significant amount of improvement between their first year and their second year.
They’re all going off to pitch this summer, all going off to pitch. All of the things we work with them, that Alan Dunn has worked with them on, they need to go apply this summer in somewhat of a less pressurized situation where they can pitch through those jams they might get in and continue to throw those pitches they may not throw because they have to win at LSU and they’re not going to throw their third-best pitch at a critical time of the game when we might lose a game to an SEC opponent if they do it. Whereas in the summer, they have more luxury to do those types of things.
It’s very unusual to have an Alex Lange as a true freshman. Aaron Nola wasn’t that good as a true freshman.