HOOVER, Ala.—Paul Mainieri just has the magic touch.
Baseball America's reigning coach of the year has an uncanny ability to know exactly what buttons to push to give his team a spark. He recognizes emerging players on his roster before they break out, and he puts them in position to succeed.
Last year, of course, Mainieri shook up his lineup midway through the season, installing freshman Mikie Mahtook as the center fielder, sliding preseason All-American shortstop D.J. LeMahieu to second base and inserting freshman Austin Nola into the lineup at short.
It took Mainieri a little longer to find the right buttons this year (remember that disastrous Matty Ott start against Florida on May 2?). But he found them nonetheless.
It started with the installation of freshman Alex Edward into the starting lineup, first in left field and then at third base in mid-May. As Mainieri put it, Edward won't win any gold gloves, but at least the coach doesn't have to cringe when the ball is hit to the hot corner.
Next came the great Mason Katz Gambit. The freshman left fielder had played just two games all season—so naturally Mainieri plugged him into the lineup in all three SEC tournament games in place of struggling Trey Watkins. And naturally Katz has delivered, with three hits and two RBIs in the opener against Florida, and two more hits and another RBI in Saturday's 8-0 win against Mississippi, propelling the Tigers to the SEC title game for the third straight season.
"I think this Katz kid has given us a spark this week—he's taken advantage of an opportunity," Mainieri said. "When kids are on the bench, and then they get an opportunity, there's something about those kids that gives a spark, because the other kids are rooting for them."
But the big story Saturday was another Mainieri hunch made good. Junior righthander Ben Alsup had never started against a Southeastern Conference opponent until Mainieri gave him the ball Saturday. He responded with a seven-inning, complete-game, one-hit shutout, striking out seven and walking just two.
Of course he did.
Mainieri said Alsup had a strong fall practice, and the coach envisioned him playing a key role in the staff heading into the spring.
"Then he had a rough start to the spring and I thought maybe his stuff isn't good enough," Mainieri said.
Alsup settled into a mop-up role, and showed flashes of potential in SEC games, but Mainieri said he was disappointed by the way he pitched against Vanderbilt on May 8.
"I put him into a spot and he didn't pitch well," Mainieri said, "and I challenged him and said, 'Are you the kind of pitcher who can only pitch when we're not in a game anymore?' I think that kind of touched a cord with him."
Mainieri said he could see Alsup turning the corner over the last few weeks, as his velocity climbed to 90-91 and he started doing a better job getting ahead in counts. And then, a week ago today, he was hit on the hand by a comebacker against Mississippi State. The Tigers thought he might have broken a bone, but the X-rays came back negative, and he made what Mainieri termed "a miraculous recovery."
"When he was pitching against Mississippi State, I had visions of him starting here this weekend and beyond—I really did," Mainieri said. "I had the feeling in my heart that it was coming for this kid . . . I really felt Ben is ready to make that jump to being an elite pitcher. Skip (Bertman) called me the other day and asked me who I'm throwing, and I said Alsup. I said, 'Skip, he reminds me of the guys that you used to have that you would redshirt and in their third year they'd all of a sudden develop into somebody.' He didn't redshirt, but here he is in his third year, he's confident. He's got a good changeup and a good slider and he keeps the ball down."
That was the key for Alsup on Saturday—keeping the ball down and getting ahead early in counts. It helped to have senior first baseman Blake Dean chirping those messages from his left throughout the game.
LSU has searched all season for consistency from its starting rotation. All of a sudden, it has gotten three consecutive strong starts, and things are looking up. Anthony Ranaudo and Austin Ross did what they were expected to; Alsup went above and beyond.
"I don't think it was a fluke, quite frankly," Mainieri said. "I think we found ourselves a third starter."
Dean, meanwhile, was another of Saturday's heroes, and not just for his words of encouragement for Alsup. He drove in three runs with a pair of sacrifice flies and a solo homer, and all of a sudden it appears Dean is getting hot at the perfect time of year, yet again.
"When he gets in the postseason, man, this kid, there's something about him. He's got that extra ingredient," Mainieri said of Dean.
The same could be said of the Tigers as a whole—and Mainieri said it.
"There's something about them, when they get to the postseason, they've got an aura about them, and they like winning championships," he said. "I really don't want to sound arrogant, but it's just something that's part of being at LSU. These kids are used to it. Confidence is a very fragile thing, and baseball is the most difficult game of all sports to play, and it plays with your confidence. It's a mental game. When you're struggling a bit you've got to fight it, fight it, fight it, but when you're going good you feel like you can beat anybody, and our kids are playing that way right now."
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