Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tools of the Tigers

RT Staff Note: Much has been writtem about the first rounders that are part of this great World Series...We saw a story on one of LSU's players that shows that all of these players are huge contributors to their teams. On the heels of their huge come from behind win yesterday giving Rice it's 0 and 2 and barbecue status, we thought we'd give you readers a taste of what they write about in the Daily Iberian.

Power. Speed. Fielding. Jared Mitchell may not be the prototypical 1- or 2-hole hitter, but he brings a lot to the table for LSU at this week’s College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

The Tigers play national No. 2 seed North Carolina at 6 p.m. today on ESPN2 in their first game at the CWS since 2004.

“Jared is a guy that’s a special blend of power and speed,” said head coach Paul Mainieri, making his second trip as a coach to the CWS, and his first at LSU. “What people don’t realize about him is he hits the ball as hard as anybody on the team.”

He’s also a baserunning threat, which helps the hitters behind him. With the speedy Mitchell on base, power hitters like Blake Dean (20 home runs) and Matt Clark (nation’s best 26 homers) see a lot more fastballs, since opposing pitchers are often afraid Mitchell will run on them.

“Any time he gets on base, he puts pressure on the defense,” said LSU assistant coach and hitting instructor Cliff Godwin. “Even though he’s not a great bunter, he’s getting better. We’re working on it. He’s able to put the ball in play. And he’s one of the strongest players on the team. Any time he gets on base, we can do a lot — hit and run, steal.”

Though he struggled early, as did much of the LSU lineup, Mitchell has improved his batting average to .307, one of six starters hitting above .300 for the Tigers heading into Omaha. LSU was only 23-16-1 overall and 6-11-1 in Southeastern Conference play on April 20 before going on a tear for the remainder of the season, winning a school-record 23 straight games and 25 of their next 26 to reach the CWS.

“Especially when we were 6-11-1, the thing we talked about most was this is the Southeastern Conference,” said Mitchell. “If you just keep on winning, everybody’s going to beat everyone else. If you keep winning, you’re going to catch those teams.”

Mitchell has six homers and 10 doubles with 29 RBIs and 41 runs scored in only 163 at-bats. His 45 strikeouts might seem high for a No. 2 hitter, but Mainieri said he wants the sophomore from New Iberia batting there because he likes the pressure Mitchell can put on a defense with his bat and his baserunning.

“I think he’s improving,” said Mainieri, who brought Notre Dame to the CWS in 2001. “He’s hitting to the opposite field well.”

Getting his confidence up was a key to getting better as the season went on. Mitchell was a spot starter early in the season but didn’t become a regular in the starting lineup until April 22 against Tulane, the first game of LSU’s school- and conference-record 23 game win streak.

“Every player struggles, and every team struggles at some point,” said Mitchell. “You just try to keep a positive attitude.”

Mitchell’s started 24 of the 26 games since April 22, including 22 starts in left field, and hit in the No. 9 hole the first seven games before moving up to second in the lineup on May 4 against Kentucky. He’s been in the 2 hole in every game but one since then, batting .356 (36-101) since getting back into the starting lineup to begin the Tigers’ win streak and .346 (27-78) since moving up to second in the batting order.

“We tweaked his swing a little, said Godwin. “But mainly it was just Jared beginning to believe in himself a little more.”

That confidence carries over to the field. Mitchell has started 39 of the 49 games he’s appeared in this season, mostly in left field after the emergence of freshman Leon Landry, who’s made several highlight-reel catches in center field. With Mitchell in left, Landry in center and Derek Helenihi in right, the Tigers have one of the best defensive groups of outfielders in the country, Mainieri said.

“I’m sure that given a choice, Jared would rather play center field,” said Mainieri, noting that Mitchell played there as a freshman last year. “But with Leon playing so well, we felt it would give us more options to put Jared in left field. Once Jared accepted that, he’s worked hard to become an exceptional left fielder, and he has.”

Mitchell is anxious to get started at the College World Series.

“I’m real excited about what’s going on. It’s what you dream about,” Mitchell said. “You want to go out there and have fun and don’t let the pressure get to you.”

Mitchell and his teammates have done a good job not letting pressure get to them. The Tigers have rallied from behind in 19 of their 25 wins since April 22 in building a 48-17-1 record.

“Everybody feels good about the way things are going,” Mitchell said. “For me, it still comes down to the same thing — we still have to play the same way.”

If the Tigers can do that, he said, they have a shot at winning LSU’s first CWS championship since 2000 and its sixth overall.

“We just need to be relaxed,” said Mitchell. “I think the biggest thing people are going to say about us is we’re not very experienced (in the CWS). But we’re good enough to play with anybody there. We’re good enough to beat anybody there.”

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