Mainieri Event

Today’s blog is all about the Southeastern Conference. Most SEC teams were in action Tuesday, and all of them except Auburn and Georgia took care of business. The slumping Bulldogs dropped a 3-1 contest against Western Carolina, which has now beaten two ACC teams (Georgia Tech and North Carolina State) and an SEC foe. Auburn’s bullpen, which has been such a huge part of its early success, let it down yesterday, allowing five runs over the final two innings in a 7-3 loss to Virginia Military. The Keydets are now 13-3 with a series win at Florida, a tight loss to Virginia and a victory over Auburn (with another game to go this afternoon). That’s a quality VMI club that I’ll discuss in further detail next week.

A couple of SEC injury notes before I move on to the mailbag, which deals with another SEC team, Louisiana State. Arkansas junior righthander Shaun Seibert is scheduled to have an MRI today on his throwing elbow. Seibert, who allowed just two hits over four shutout innings Saturday against Kansas after struggling for the first few weeks of the season, felt pain in his elbow after throwing a curveball against the Jayhawks. The Razorbacks could have used an effective Seibert this weekend at No. 24 Kentucky, but it looks like they’ll start freshman lefty Dallas Keuchel instead.

Meanwhile, Tennessee All-America catcher J.P. Arencibia returned from his lower back injury this weekend, though the Volunteers played him at first base. He should return to his catching duties this weekend against Alabama. Fellow All-American center fielder Julio Borbon won’t be back for that series, but seven weeks after breaking his ankle he is starting to take batting practice, and the Vols hope he’ll be back in time for Wright State next Wednesday and next weekend’s series against Georgia. To the mailbag:

I know they have their issues at the plate and on the mound, but what do you see the (LSU) Tigers doing this year? I went out on a limb and said they will make a regional, but won’t host. We down here think it is like when Skip (Bertman) first took over, which was not good. I think us fans will not see progress till next season. What do you think?

Ian Edmonston

Paul Mainieri knew his first year at the helm in Baton Rouge would be a challenge, and it has been, with a home series loss to Lipscomb. But the Tigers are starting to respond to his coaching style, and after taking a big series against Southern Mississippi this past weekend, LSU sits at 12-7. Still, it will take some time for Mainieri to bring in his kind of players and implement his system.

“This year has been unique for me personally,” Mainieri said. “We’ve improved in some areas but we need improvements in some areas. The kids have been responsive to a new style of coaching. At times we just come up short talent wise. The kids have been fun to work with and I see bright days ahead for LSU baseball. They’ve showed a lot of resolve.”

This LSU team certainly isn’t as talented as Bertman’s powerhouse teams in the mid-90s, but its talent level is comparable to Bertman’s first two teams, which won 32 and 41 games, respectively. Newcomers Jared Mitchell, Charlie Furbush, Jared Bradford and T.J. Forrest boost the talent level significantly, though they’ve have had their ups and downs. Mitchell, an ultra-athletic freshman outfielder who also plays wide receiver for the LSU football team, leads the Tigers with a .325 average and nine stolen bases in nine attempts, though one coach who faced LSU said Mitchell will chase high fastballs if you can elevate a good one. Fellow freshman Forrest has been a very pleasant surprise. The 6-foot-4 righthander had Tommy John surgery in high school that kept him from throwing during the fall, and the Tigers didn’t even expect him to pitch this spring. But he returned more quickly than anticipated and threw three scoreless, one-hit innings against Centenary last Tuesday, so Mainieri decided to give him a shot at the Sunday starter job. He threw three more strong innings on four days’ rest against Southern Miss, though Mainieri said his arm still has a ways to go. LSU will bring him along slowly and groom him for a long future in the weekend rotation.

Bradford, a junior transfer from Shelton (Ala.) State Community College, started the year as LSU’s closer, but after the Tigers dropped the first two games of a mid-February series at Stetson, Mainieri decided to start Bradford on Sunday in hopes of finding a spark. He responded by pitching six strong innings and has settled into the rotation since then, with sophomore righthander Louis Coleman assuming the closer job. Bradford’s hard-sinking fastball and quality three-pitch mix have helped him go 3-1, 2.51 with a 28-5 strikeout-walk ratio in 29 innings. He solidifies the rotation behind Furbush, the junior lefthander who transferred in from Division III St. Joseph’s (Maine) after a standout summer in the Cape Cod League. Furbush has been erratic, with three great starts including Friday’s eight innings of three-hit ball against Southern Miss, and two subpar starts.

“Inconsistency is a concern, but it’s not too surprising,” Mainieri said of Furbush’s start to the season. “Although he pitched in the Cape, he still needs to make the adjustment from Division III ball to Division I. Getting Charlie to command the strike zone has been difficult at times, but I think he’s doing better. He pitched a phenomenal game against Southern Miss, and if he can duplicate that this Friday, I’ll be very happy.”

Louisiana State will need Furbush, Bradford and the rest to be in top form this weekend, as the Tigers open Southeastern Conference play with a daunting series at No. 3 South Carolina.

“I’m really appreciative of the schedule-makers giving me a nice easy one my first weekend in the SEC,” Mainieri quipped.

Of course, as Mainieri acknowledged, there are no easy ones in the SEC. Even if eight teams make the NCAA tournament, that means four teams have to miss out, and I expect Louisiana State to be one of them. It’s a bit of a rebuilding year in Baton Rouge, and as distasteful as that notion is to LSU fans, Mainieri deserves some patience. There is reason to be optimistic about the future, and I’m certain the Tigers will win some big series in 2007 as well. I just don’t think they’ll win enough to make a regional.