With his trademark cheery demeanor and cautious optimism, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri made a strong prediction as he stood before reporters at LSU’s Media Day on Jan. 25.
“I believe every year is the year, and this year is no different,” Mainieri said. “I think my optimism is very well-placed.”
Two weeks later, Mainieri didn’t back down from his prognostication, but noted one essential piece had to be in place for it to happen.
“To go to Omaha and to win it all, you have to have co-aces,” Mainieri said. “You have to have two super-stud pitchers, minimum.”
Those super-studs will come in the form of sophomore righty Aaron Nola and junior right-hander Ryan Eades, a duo who started last season with promise but ended in different directions.
As a true freshman, Nola was inserted into the weekend rotation to replace a struggling Kurt McCune midway through the season, plowing his way to a 7-4 record with 89 strikeouts over 89.2 innings.
Eades, on the other hand, started on a tear but faltered down the stretch, capitulated by a humiliating defeat in Game 3 of the Super Regional against Stony Brook. Eades lasted just 2.2 innings while giving up seven hits and four runs against the Seawolves.
Mainieri named Nola the starter for opening night with Eades to follow Saturday afternoon, but he didn’t rule out the prospect of Eades progressing to the forefront of the rotation.
“If Ryan Eades is to become the Friday night starter for us, I want him to earn it,” Mainieri said. “I don’t think he’s earned it yet. I do think he’s capable of earning it.”
Comparing Eades to former LSU standout and current Kansas City Royal Louis Coleman during his sophomore season struggles, Mainieri said he’s noticed a “mean streak” developing within Eades, much like Coleman cultivated for his final two seasons.
Eades found that mean streak this fall, putting his struggles in the rearview mirror.
“This is a clean start, starting with this fall,” Eades said. “I just wanted to have a different kind of presence about myself this fall and just kind of start from a clean slate.”
After Nola started the first game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, NCAA Regional and Super Regional, he seemingly comes into opening night a seasoned veteran of big stages.
That doesn’t, however, diminish any nerves.
“It was one of my goals for this year to start opening night,” Nola said. “We’re all going to have nerves. I’m going to have nerves because it’s the first game of the season, but I’ll settle down once the game gets started.”
Beyond Nola and Eades, the rotation is a mystery because the third starter has not been announced by Mainieri and has baffled the rest of the team as it goes through its preparations for the season opener.
Senior southpaw Brent Bonvillain was listed on the depth chart as the third starter, but McCune and senior lefty Chris Cotton have also been rumored as possible Sunday hurlers.
No matter who gets the ball for the third game of the opening series against Maryland, Mainieri said the door is still open beyond that for someone else to make a mark.
If, of course, they earn it.
“We’re in the earn-it business,” Mainieri said. “The guys that earn it are going to be the guys we’re going to give the ball to and count on.”