Baton Rouge Regional Preview

Baton Rouge Regional Capsule
Alex Box Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
No. 1 Louisiana State (43-16)
22nd appearance, automatic, Southeastern Conference tournament champion, No. 7 national seed
No. 2 Southern Mississippi (40-20)
Ninth appearance, at-large, second place in Conference USA
No. 3 New Orleans (42-19)
14th appearance, at-large, second place in Sun Belt Conference
No. 4 Texas Southern (16-32)
Second appearance, automatic, Southwestern Conference tournament champion
Coach Paul Mainieri ramped up the rebuilding process in his second season at Louisiana State, guiding the Tigers back to regionals for the first time since 2005. It took some time for the nation's deepest recruiting class to settle in this spring, as the Tigers dropped four of their first six conference series to fall into a 6-11-1 hole in SEC play through April 20. But LSU has not lost since, ripping off a 20-game winning streak that included series sweeps against South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn, followed by a perfect 4-0 run through the SEC tournament. The key to the run has been the solidification of the pitching staff, as lefthanders Ryan Verdugo (8-2, 3.61) and Blake Martin (5-3, 4.94) developed into a reliable one-two punch atop the rotation and righthander Louis Coleman (6-0, 1.49) blossomed into a dominant complement to bullpen ace Jared Bradford (10-4, 4.09). Bradford also made seven starts for LSU and is a valuable weapon in either role. First baseman Matt Clark (22 homers and 52 RBIs) and outfielder Blake Dean (.346 with 16 homers and 57 RBIs) provide the power in a deep, athletic lineup that also ranked second in the SEC in stolen bases. This figures to be another emotional weekend at venerable Alex Box Stadium, which will be replaced by a new facility next year, and the Tigers will be eager to send the Box out with a super-regional, not just a regional.
Southern Mississippi doesn't stand out in any one phase of the game, but the Golden Eagles are well coached and seldom beat themselves. USM ranked near the bottom of CUSA in batting, scoring and stolen bases, and it ranked in the middle of the CUSA pack in ERA and fielding percentage. But Southern Miss was steady for most of the year and easily qualified for its sixth straight regional appearance. Fifth-year senior righthander Barry Bowden (8-3, 1.62) returned from a strained muscle in his shoulder to pitch well in the final three weeks, and he'll get the start against New Orleans. Bowden's best pitch is his exceptional changeup, which figures to be a critical weapon against a hard-hitting UNO team that feasts on fastballs. The glue in USM's lineup is junior second baseman James Ewing (.369/.451/.542 with five homers and 43 RBIs), who is a tough out in the middle of the order and a leader in the middle of the diamond.
Even while its campus and community continued to struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans slugged its way to its second straight regional appearance. But unlike last year, when UNO won the Sun Belt's automatic bid, the Privateers earned an at-large bid this year thanks to seven combined wins against Alabama, LSU, Tulane and Southern Miss along with second-place finishes in the regular season and conference tournament. The Privateers have plenty of veterans who played critical roles on the 2007 team that won a game against Wichita State in regionals, including second baseman Johnny Giavotella (.354 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs), third baseman Nick Schwaner (.349 with 12 homers and 54 RBIs), shortstop T.J. Baxter (.374 with 11 homers and 60 RBIs), and outfielder Joey Butler (.349 with 11 homers and 58 RBIs). The Privateers even added firepower with the transfers of catcher/DH platoon Jeff Lanning (.382 with 13 homers and 50 RBIs) and Josh Vander Hey (.357 with 12 homers and 71 RBIs). With six players in double-digits in homers, it's not surprising that UNO ranks seventh in the nation with 93 home runs. Alex Box Stadium is an offensive yard, and UNO is built to capitalize. Oh, and the Privateers have all three weekend starters back from a year ago, led by ace Bryan Cryer (12-1, 3.00), but expect coach Tom Walter to start fellow senior righty Justin Garcia (6-1, 5.59) in the opener and save Cryer for LSU. New Orleans is very familiar with LSU, having beaten the Tigers twice this year, and won't be intimidated by The Intimidator billboard at Alex Box Stadium.
At 16-32, Texas Southern has the worst record in the field of 64. The Tigers lost 17 out of 18 games during a long stretch from the end of March to the beginning of May, and they went 7-17 in the SWAC—good enough for fourth place in the league's Western Division. But Texas Southern's offense caught fire in a perfect run through the SWAC tournament, averaging 11.25 runs in four games, culminating in a come-from-behind 12-11 win over defending champion Prairie View A&M in the finals. Texas Southern's 8.93 ERA ranks 281st out of 286 Division I teams, so expect LSU's big bats to feast in the opener. But Texas Southern does have a bit of firepower in its own right, led by junior outfielder Earnest Rhone (.406 with eight homers and 37 RBIs).