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Thursday, April 1, 2010
Ranaudo back on the mound for LSU

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Defending national champion LSU has yet to play its best baseball this season. The Tigers have been scratching out runs, grinding out games and generally doing just enough to manufacture wins.

Anthony Ranaudo
After being sidelined five weeks with an elbow injury, starter Anthony Ranaudo is back on the mound for LSU.

Coach Paul Mainieri will be the first to tell you they haven't been an offensive juggernaut. That's OK. They weren't up until this point last season, either, and it worked out just fine, as the Tigers won their first national championship since 2000.

This season is starting to have a similar feel. Georgia comes to Alex Box Stadium on Friday (ESPNU, 8:30 p.m. ET) for the start of a three-game series, and as we move into April, that proverbial switch for LSU may also be flipping.

The No. 4-ranked Tigers (21-3) have won seven straight games -- including five in a row in the SEC -- and are getting their ace pitcher, All-American Anthony Ranaudo, back at just the right time.

Ranaudo is returning to his customary Friday night spot in the rotation after an arm injury sidelined him for five weeks. He'll still be limited on how many pitches he can throw, but he retired all six batters he faced Saturday in a 10-6 win over Tennessee.

"The only thing that's left is to get our bats going and string together some hits, and this is the time to do it," junior outfielder Leon Landry said.

Mainieri jokes that he's simply a poorly starting coach.

"I don't know if it's the way we do it or what, but it takes my teams a while to kind of get going," Mainieri said. "The good thing is that they don't panic, because they trust me when I tell them we're going to be a better team as the year goes along.

Micah Gibbs
LSU got off to a slow start, but is regaining top form.

"If you can win some games and fight your way through them now, sort of keep your head above water, you know you're going to be better down the line."

The formula worked brilliantly for Mainieri when he was at Notre Dame, and it has helped him return LSU to the pinnacle of college baseball after only three seasons in Baton Rouge.

A College World Series appearance in his second season, one that included a dizzying 23-game winning streak, was followed by the Tigers starting last season at No. 1, and finishing on top for their first national title since the Skip Bertman days.

"This is the Taj Mahal of college baseball, as I see it," said Mainieri, who left a powerhouse program at Notre Dame to take on the LSU rebuilding project. "This, to me, is as good a job as you can have in college baseball, when you look at the facilities, the fan support, the media coverage. It's all a double-edged sword. As long as you're doing well, it's great. But there's a lot of pressure."

That pressure was magnified in Mainieri's second season with the closing of the old Alex Box Stadium. He admits the pressure to make that a special season was overwhelming at times, as the Tigers said goodbye and moved into the new Alex Box Stadium in 2009.

With four weeks remaining in the 2008 regular season, the Tigers were sitting at 23-16-1 overall and in 11th place in the SEC standings.

They responded with their 23-game winning streak, which was finally broken by UC Irvine in the Baton Rouge Super Regional. But LSU came back to win the next two games, sending the old Alex Box Stadium out in grand fashion and earning the school's 14th College World Series appearance.

"I don't know if I could have dreamt the ending of 2008 and the full year of 2009 any better," said Mainieri, who has earned national Coach of the Year honors in each of the past two years. "I just feel very blessed to have had it happen that way.

"Now I feel like I've done a good job of putting it behind me and our team, and let's just focus on this season. I told the kids that nobody will ever take away what happened to us in 2008 and 2009, but it doesn't really impact 2010.

"We need to make our own memories for this year."

So far, so good. The Tigers have scored 37 runs in their past five SEC games.

"Baseball is a funny game. Every team is different. Every game is different," sophomore outfielder Mikie Mahtook said. "I'm not too worried about our offense. It's about seeing pitchers and having more at-bats.

"It's just a matter of time before the offense steps up and we put it all together."

And when they do?

"Omaha's our goal. It's our goal every year," Landry said. "It's a long road to get there, a bumpy road sometimes. But that's where we expect to be.

"That's the standard here. It's either win or win, basically."

Under Mainieri, all the Tigers have done is win.

Chris Low covers SEC football for ESPN.com.