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Praise for Paul Mainieri

First off, huge win.  LSU rallied to win the series after losing the first game in every possible way there is to lose a game.  They looked as awful as a team can look in a game, particularly by unraveling after a call didn't go their way.  In the next 24 hours, it was a different LSU team: calm, cool, collected and absolutely sure that it was going to win the series.  That's a huge credit to the players and Mainieri, specifically.  Well-coached teams don't panic. 

Richard said something in his game review that sort of bothered me.  He mentioned that we've been rather critical of Mainieri, and I guess that is a true statement.  It's far easier (and more interesting) to criticize than to praise.  But it does bother me that someone reading this site could get the impression that I think Mainieri is a poor coach.  Nothing is further from the truth. 

He's not Skip (but who is?), but I believe that Mainieri is an outstanding coach.  He took over a program in total disarray and with a fanbase that still expects national titles.  Instead of trying to lower our expectations, he immediately set to work at meeting them.  He has embraced the bar set so high by Skip.  Look, we're not ever going to win five national titles in a decade, and I don't think we actually expect that, but Mainieri carries himself like he does expect that level of success.  He came in right away and demanded excellence, when I think he could have very easily sold us a rebuilding project. 

Getting a program back to elite status is one of the hardest things to do in sports.  Once a program loses that mystique, it moves quickly from acting like a feared bully to that doddering old man sitting around talking about the old days.  I'm not sure when former titles move into "history" and no one is impressed by them anymore, but I think it's safe to say LSU baseball has moved to that point.  We can't keep living in the past, though we still want to celebrate it.  Mainieri has embraced that past while at the same time moving us forward to create some new history of his own. 

He has done this primarily by recruiting like mad.  Not only did he sign the #1 class last year, by and large, those players showed up on campus, always a huge risk in baseball recruiting.  He has not hesitated to throw freshmen into key roles.  Not only last year, when it was pretty obvious the returning players weren't up to snuff, but this year as well.  Mainieri handed the closer's job to Ott and he's been a ridiculous.  A 55/2 K/BB ratio is so absurd I can't even comprehend it.  When Helenihi struggled, Mainieri didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on starting Hanover in his place.  He's found a place for Mahtook in a very crowded outfield.  And as much as I criticize Nola, he will be a valuable contributor to this team over his career and he's gaining huge experience right now.  That's four freshmen in key roles on a team that returned seven starters. 

Anyone can recruit a guy like Anthony Ranaudo (ok, probably not).  Mainieri somehow got a guy who was a MLB lock to actually show up on campus.  I don't know how he does it.  He casts a wide net, but also locks down the premium Louisiana talent.  And the way he is able to find playing time for all of these hotshot prospects is pretty remarkable.  Mainieri's roster management skills are excellent.  OK, I've knocked some of his moves (leaving Gaudet off the roster, Nola's playing time, Helenihi getting benched), but I'm arguing the margins.  His overall roster management has been outstanding.

The best example of Mainieri's roster management has been his solution to his problem of having no reliable left-handed relief pitching.  He looked down his roster and converted Chad Jones and Buzzy Haydel into relievers.  Presto.  We have left handed relief.  Hopefully, this doesn't preclude Jones from playing the field and getting to hit, but it sure is nice to have a guy who can beat those lefty heavy lineup stacked to beat our right handed starters. 

Even less heralded but no less impressive has been his management of the rotation.  Coleman went into this season as our bullpen ace.  As soon as Ott emerged as a viable closer, Mainieri did not hesitate to move Coleman to the rotation where he has been, in short, awesome.  In fact, Coleman's move to the rotation is probably the most important coaching decision of the season.  Coleman is so dedicated to LSU that if his right arm fell off in the middle of the game, he'd finish the game pitching lefty.  The temptation for Mainieri is to ride a workhorse like that into the ground, a temptation he has largely resisted (sure, Coleman got a complete game this weekend, but it was on 113 pitches and it was a critical series when you really should push the limits).  His use of Coleman has been masterful.     

Bradshaw struggled in the rotation, but he's become our most reliable reliever not named Ott since moving to the pen (also because Bertuccini has been lousy - what's wrong with him?).  He's taken over Coleman's swingman role.  Ross has struggled as of late, but Mainieri handed him the ball this weekend in one of the most important games of the season, and he responded with a workmanlike 4-3 win.  He's even shifted around Ross and Coleman's starts based on Ranaudo's success on Friday.  Matulis has quietly developed into a reliable midweek starter (our fifth freshman getting considerable playing time) who will probably be called upon to start in the postseason when the rotation is bound to get a little screwy.  And he'll be ready to slide into a weekend role next year. 

I tend to take the coach out to the woodshed for his tactical decisions, but while in-game tactics are the most scrutinized part of a baseball coach's job, they simply aren't as important as his decisions regarding roster management and the instruction of his players.  LSU only had 46 errors, which leads the SEC, but even more important, they have allowed only 20 unearned runs, which also leads the SEC.  Someone deserves the credit for our team's top notch defense, and I'm perfectly willing to give that almost entirely to Mainieri. 

OK, I hate bunting and think Mainieri overuses the bunt.  He's even added the hit and run to his arsenal of offensive tactics I hate.  But let me defend small ball for the first and only time on this website.  I like aggressive baserunning.  I may hate the bunt, but I love that Mitchell has a permanent green light.  I like that almost everyone in the lineup is at least a threat to steal.  It takes away from a pitcher's concentration and is an additional value to having a runner on base. 

I tend not to get too angry over baserunning errors.  If you root for aggressive baserunning, you have to accept the cost: every so often, people are going to get thrown out.  This weekend was a little ridiculous, but Mainieri shut down the running game because of the wet field and the early baserunning failures.  But guys still hustled for the extra base.  This team, even when it wasn't bunting, wasn't playing station-to-station baseball waiting for the home run.  And, in college at least, bunting isn't all bad because of one major difference from the pro game: the quality of defense.  Sometimes a bunt is good because it puts pressure on a defense to make a play and there's nothing more discouraging when a team tries to give you an out and you don't take it.  I think ultimately a strategy based upon the other team making defensive errors is bound to fail, but it does mean a bunt in the first inning goes from a terrible idea to merely a bad one. 

Everything Mainieri does is with an eye to winning today and tomorrow.  That's a hard thing to do.  He's trying to win now, but he's also worrying about having the pieces in place next season and the season after that.  He's got a tremendous ability to see the long view.  I can't stress enough how impressive a job he has done by making LSU baseball, well, LSU Baseball again in so short a time.  We expect to win and teams are afraid to play us.  The mystique isn't all the way back, that takes success in Omaha, but he's got us undeniably on the right path.

I don't agree with every one of his moves, but a) no one is perfect and b) who the hell am I anyway?  I'm probably wrong (except about the bunting thing).  There is not another coach in the country I would rather have running this program.  I mean that.  We'll keep criticizing his moves, because that's what we do, but let's not lose sight of the big picture: Paul Mainieri is doing a great job as LSU's coach.