No. 14 LSU opens pursuit of CWS

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The calendar might not say it, but spring officially starts at LSU Friday night.

It might be only mid-February, but the No. 14 LSU baseball team begins its quest to return to postseason play as it opens its 2012 season against Air Force.

For a program like LSU, anything less than a trip to the College World Series generally is considered a disappointment. Imagine then, the letdown last May when the Tigers missed out on a bid to the NCAA tournament -- their third miss in the last six years and just their third miss since 1989.

"Obviously it ended in a very disappointing way without an invite to the NCAA tournament," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri at the team's preseason media day. "It was a very disappointing time when that happened, but it was kind of a mixture of emotions, because our team was playing really well at the end of the year. We were 12-3 in our last 15 games."

The sting of 2011 gives Mainieri hope for 2012, however. As well as the Tigers played down the stretch last spring, they return the overwhelming majority of the team responsible for the hot streak.

Heading into the season, LSU returns seven of its top hitters from last year, with the glaring exception of departed star outfielder Mikie Mahtook, who was a first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Other than losing Mikie Mahtook and a couple of other guys, we virtually have the entire team back from last year," Mainieri said. "Obviously the loss of Mikie is a great loss."

It's never good to lose a .383 batting average, 14 home runs and 56 RBI, which is what Mahtook contributed last year. But the Tigers return four other starters who batted above .300 last spring, including designated hitter Raph Rhymes, who posted a .360 average and 42 RBI.

With so many playmakers at the plate, Mainieri said it might be a blessing in disguise for the Tigers to lose Mahtook, who was the focal point of last year's team.

"Our team relied so much on Mikie to come through with the big hit or the big play, not to say the rest of the guys stood around to watch him play all the time, but there was a sense that, 'If I didn't come through, then Mikie will,' " Mainieri said. "Now I think the team will have more of a feeling that they are all going to contribute, and it is a responsibility that we are equally going to share in our offensive and defensive team."

Whatever kinks need to be worked out on the offensive end, the expectation is the Tigers' pitching staff will carry the day.

LSU returns its top two starters from last year in aces Kevin Gausman and 2011 Freshman All-American Kurt McCune. The duo started a combined 28 games as freshmen, going the distance as weekend starters -- an unheard of feat at LSU.

"A lot has already been made about our pitching staff; certainly our pitching staff is going to have to lead the way for us this year, and I think it will," Mainieri said.

Gausman opens the season tonight against Air Force, and McCune will close things out against the Falcons on Sunday. In between, fellow sophomore Ryan Eades takes the Saturday start against Alcorn State. Eades came on strong toward the end of last season, earning six starts as a freshman with a 4-1 record.

While the starting rotation looks solid heading into the season opener, Mainieri acknowledged the trouble spot -- the Tigers' bullpen. LSU featured five relievers last spring with an ERA at 5.00 or higher.

LSU lost seven SEC games by one run, and the Tigers' bullpen infamously gave away three ninth-inning leads -- including a three-run rally to No. 1 Florida and a three-run, walk-off homer to Arkansas. Had they held on in just three games, the Tigers likely would have advanced to the postseason.

One spot fans will surely have an eye on is the closer position. The Tigers haven't been able to find someone to reliably shut the door on opponents since Matty Ott's dominant 2009 season.

Mainieri has said returning sophomore Nick Rumbelow will get the first look at closer after a strong offseason. Incoming junior college transfer Nick Goody and freshman Aaron Nola -- brother of senior shortstop Austin Nola -- are also names to keep an eye on.

David Helman covers LSU sports for GeauxTigerNation. He can be reached at helmanespn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @HelmanESPN.