Can They Repeat?

Louisiana State won its sixth national championship since 1991 and first since 2000, re-establishing itself as part of college baseball royalty by beating Texas 11-4 and winning the 2009 College World Series.

To begin a second installment of the LSU dynasty, coach Paul Mainieri will have to follow the example of former Tigers coach Skip Bertman, who used a power-fueled offense and flexible pitching staff to win back-to-back titles in 1996-97. Only Oregon State (2006-07) has repeated as champion since then.

Many of those ingredients seem to be in place, thanks to a strong crop of underclassmen on the current championship roster. The sophomores on Louisiana State were part of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class in the fall of 2007, and formed the core of the 2009 championship club. One, middle infielder D.J. LeMahieu, was this season’s leading hitter (.350) but is expected to leave after being drafted in the second round (Cubs) as an eligible sophomore.

LSU also should lose first-rounder Jared Mitchell (the CWS’ Most Outstanding Player), fifth-round picks Louis Coleman (a senior who’s gone for sure) and Ryan Schimpf, as well as 10th-rounder Blake Dean and 11th-rounder Sean Ochinko.

However, LSU will return plenty of firepower in that sophomore class. One sophomore, outfielder/lefthander Chad Jones, could be a key to the Tigers’ possible return to Omaha. He threw well down the stretch in the LSU bullpen, including five outs in the championship clincher. He’s peaked at 91-92 mph as a pitcher, but his athletic ability and powerful 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame could help him replace Mitchell in the LSU outfield. He has 14 hits in 48 career at-bats (.292). However, he’s also a potential high pick for the 2010 NFL draft and is expected to start at free safety this fall. If he thrives in football, he could leave the baseball team to prepare for the NFL draft in April.

The biggest member of that rising junior class is 6-foot-7 righthander Anthony Ranaudo, who enters the summer at the top of the 2010 draft class. He pitched through fatigue to win the national championship clincher, throwing nearly 125 innings in his sophomore season after throwing just 12 as a freshman. Ranaudo, a 12-game winner this season, already has proved he can be the ace of a championship staff, giving LSU an asset few teams can match.

LSU’s class of rising juniors also includes this year’s No. 3 starter, Austin Ross (6-8, 5.18); outfielder Leon Landry, a premium defender who lost playing time this season down the stretch but still hit .300 with 12 home runs; and righthander Daniel Bradshaw, who was a trusted reliever and sometime starter during a 4-0, 3.04 season.

The Tigers’ rising sophomores also will contribute significantly to a repeat attempt. Shortstop Austin Nola and third baseman Tyler Hanover were significant contributors down the stretch, especially Nola with the glove. Righthander Matty Ott, a first-team All-Freshman choice, already is a star after picking up 16 saves, and athletic center fielder Mikie Mahtook should burst into stardom as a sophomore. If he needs a confidence boost, he can remember his RBI double in the sixth inning that provided the go-ahead run in the championship clincher.

The other key in college baseball, of course, is getting recruits through the draft. The Tigers’ two top pitching recruits, righthanders Zack Von Rosenberg and Brody Colvin, were picked on the draft’s second day out of high school. Von Rosenberg went in the sixth round to the Pirates, who have stated they hope to spend money beyond the first couple of rounds, and Colvin went in the seventh round to the Phillies, who didn’t have a first-round pick and also have been flexible with their draft signing budget in recent years. The Pirates also drafted athletic catcher Wes Luquette, perhaps the recruiting class’ top hitter, in the 27th round.

Texas might be better suited for a run back to Omaha, losing just two drafted players off the ’09 club in lefty Austin Wood and first baseman Brandon Belt. The Longhorns’ rotation of rising juniors Chance Ruffin and Brandon Workman and rising sophomore Tyler Jungmann—who was the best pitcher in the CWS, as evidenced by his complete-game win over LSU in the CWS Finals’ second game—should be the best in the nation. Texas also should get its biggest bats back in juniors Kevin Keyes, an outfielder; Cameron Rupp, a catcher/outfielder; and DH Russ Moldenhauer, who hit four homers in Omaha after going homerless during an injury-plagued season. Moldenhauer, a third-round pick out of high school in 2006, wasn’t even drafted this year.

Texas may return more experienced players who were integral to their 2009 run. But LSU will return talented players who have something the Texas players won’t— national championship rings.