LSU starts the road to Omaha Friday night, here's how the Tigers get there
A year ago on the eve of LSU’s 2018 baseball opener, Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri was extremely concerned.
He had lost eight players from his 2017 College World Series second-place finishers to the MLB Draft, including his top two starting pitchers, his double-play combination and two sluggers.
Mainieri had too many questions and not enough answers. And it showed when LSU lost its three-game season-opening series to Notre Dame and then never won more than four straight games all year.
As the season progressed, his preseason worries were justified. A 39-27 rollercoaster journey ended in the NCAA Corvallis Regional. It's where the Tigers were emphatically eliminated by eventual national champion Oregon State, getting outscored by a combined 26-1 in a pair of losses to Beavers.
With Mainieri opening his 13th LSU season Friday night against Louisiana-Monroe at 7 in Alex Box Stadium, he's anxious to see the Tigers' lineup of veteran bats and a deep pitching staff sprinkled with experience and enormously talented newcomers.
“We don’t have a perfect team, nobody does,” Mainieri said standing in front of his home dugout on a sunny, breezy Thursday afternoon. “As far as putting a team together, preparing them and being ready to go, it’s about as confident as I’ve ever been.
“But I’m always more anxious and nervous about opening day than I am coaching in the national championship game. It’s just the unknown.”
What’s fact is four of his five Tigers’ CWS teams made the trip to Omaha in odd-numbered years – 2017, 2015, 2013 and 2009.
“I’m proud of our 2009 national championship,” Mainieri said, “but quite frankly I’m ready for another one. It’s not a process that happens fast. You have to work yourself through a tough season. You have to deal with the ups and downs in a very mature way.”
Five college baseball preseason polls rate LSU either No. 1 or No. 2, which is a nice tribute. But it doesn’t mean diddly-squat once the season-opening pitch is thrown.
So how do the Tigers live up to expectations and return to their Omaha summer vacation home? There’s a tried and true roadmap Mainieri’s previous CWS teams have followed. To find their way back to TD Ameritrade Park, the Tigers must:
Have steady leadership and consistent performance from a veteran core: Right fielder Antoine Duplantis, center fielder Zach Watson and shortstop Josh Smith have a combined 393 starts. They are the undisputed leaders of this 2019 team along with junior pitcher Zack Hess.
Two seasons ago on the 2017 LSU CWS squad, that foursome learned leadership from senior infielders Cole Freeman and Kramer Robertson, junior outfielder Greg Deichmann, junior catcher Michael Papierski, junior pitcher Alex Lange and senior hurler Jared Poche.
That ’17 group was schooled by seven seniors and a junior on the ’15 CWS Tigers’ team selected in the MLB Draft, including shortstop Alex Bregman.
Duplantis, selected by Cleveland in the 19th round of last June’s MLB Draft, decided to return this year for his senior season. He has 268 hits and needs 85 more to surpass former LSU star Eddy Furniss as the SEC’s all-time hits leader.
“It’s definitely in the back of my head, but it’s not going to overwhelm me,” Duplantis said of hits record chase. “It’s a really long season and it’s going to take a lot of hits to get there. It will be a fun run.”
Watson is coming off a broken hand he sustained playing for Team USA last summer. His goal is to have better plate discipline since he struck out more (45 times) than any LSU player in 2018.
“I’ve got to stop swinging at bad balls,” said Watson, a junior, whose average dipped to .308 last year as sophomore after batting .317 as a freshman. “That’s what hurt me.”
Smith, a junior, played just six games last season because of a back injury. He rehabbed with stretching and core strengthening exercises, something he said he’ll do three times per week for the rest of his life.
“I feel 100 percent, I’ve gone through the fall and winter and so far this spring with no problem,” Smith said.
After experimenting the last two weeks with the batting order, Mainieri said he's going with his gut feeling and will have Smith as leadoff hitter and Duplantis batting third to open the season.
Find two solid weekend starting pitchers who can combine to win 20 or more games: This has been a staple of almost all of LSU's CWS teams under Mainieri – Lange (10-5) and Poche (12-4) in 2017, Lange (12-0) and Poche (9-2) in 2015, Aaron Nola (12-0) and Ryan Eades (8-1) in 2013 and Louis Coleman (14-2) and Anthony Ranaudo (12-3) in 2009.
This year’s formidable pitching duo should be Hess and true freshman Landon Marceaux or third-year sophomore Eric Walker.
Making a transition from a closer in 2017 to a Friday night starter last season, Hess barely broke .500 with a 7-6 record and a 5.05 ERA. After a standout summer stint with Team USA where “he was terrific,” Mainieri said, Hess feels like he’s a different pitcher.
“I’ve been through the ringer,” Hess said. “There’s not an aspect of college baseball I haven’t gotten to experience. Having a full year of starter’s workload, having those games of getting knocked out in the third inning, having success and being able to self-analyze has been fruitful for me.”
Walker was a true freshman on the ’17 CWS team. He emerged as clutch Sunday starter (8-2, 3.48 ERA) before sustaining an arm injury during the CWS that required Tommy John surgery and a redshirt season last year.
“I wouldn’t wish on anyone to sit out a whole year,” Walker said. “It gave me an outsiders perspective, allowed me to analyze the game more, fine-tune what I do and gave me more of an appreciation to put on cleats.”
It’s no surprise Hess is again the Friday starter. But the shockers are true freshmen Marceaux and Jaden Hill, who were named as Tigers’ Saturday and Sunday starters to open the season. Walker will likely slide into the Sunday spot once he builds back his game-strength stamina.
“I like our pitching staff a lot," Smith said. "We've got five legit starters that can make a difference for us and we've got multiple arms out of the bullpen. That's going to play a big role for us."
Get several newcomers to play like veterans: Two years ago on LSU’s CWS team, it was Walker’s pitching and the hitting of fellow true freshman Watson and Duplantis, who finished first and second on the team in batting. On other Mainieri CWS squads, it was true freshman Lange in 2015 and then 2013 national Freshman of the Year Bregman with fellow frosh Mark Laird, true freshmen outfielder Mikie Mahtook (SEC Tournament MVP) and reliever Matty Ott (16 saves) in 2009 and true freshmen shortstop DJ LeMahieu (.337) and catcher Micah Gibbs (.322) as the third and fourth leading hitters on the 2008 squad.
This season’s newbies who have shown in scrimmages they can be impact players are freshmen first basemen Drew Bianco and Cade Beloso, outfielder Giovanni DiGiacomo, infielder Gavin Dugas, utility player C.J. Willis, the aforementioned Marceaux and Hill, pitcher Cole Henry and junior college catchers/designated hitters Saul Garza and Brock Mathis, who Hess calls a "real field general behind the plate."
Bianco, son of Ole Miss coach and former LSU star Mike Bianco, edged Beloso in a battle to fill the starting first base vacancy. Beloso will also get early season starts, depending on the situation.
“Growing up around college baseball,” Bianco said, “you learn what kind of players make it and what players don’t. I was blessed to have my Dad teach me all of that.”
Marceaux was rated Louisiana’s No. 1 high school player at Destrehan where he was 18-3 in his career with a 1.17 ERA. He had 17 strikeouts and allowed just three hits in 13.1 innings of LSU preseason intrasquad scrimmages.
“I know I’ll be nervous until I throw that first pitch over for a strike,” Marceaux said.
Garza, who’ll likely start the season as designated hitter while he continues to battle back from arthroscopic knee surgery that repaired a torn meniscus, has banged homers off several of Alex Box's new huge left field videoboard.
Avoid sophomore “jinxes”: Left fielder Daniel Cabrera and pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard both won Freshman All-American honors last season. Cabrera batted .315 with 54 RBI and Hilliard was 9-5 with a 3.79 ERA as the Tigers’ most consistent starting pitcher.
Hilliard, who has battled arm soreness since missing last year’s NCAA Regionals, is rusty from resting his arm in the summer and fall. He’s still trying to find last season’s sharpness and pitch command.
On the other hand, Mainieri, coached Cabrera last summer on Team USA when Cabrera hit .300. The top Tiger expects huge things from the Baton Rouge native.
“I think Daniel is capable of being one of the greats who’s ever played here,” Mainieri said. “His knowledge and instincts for the game have improved. He has no self-doubts at all.”
Win 7 or more SEC series: Four of Mainieri’s five CWS teams accomplished this. Three of them – 2015, 2013 and 2009 – won 9-of-10 league series. Last season, the Tigers were 5-5 in SEC series.
Of the 10 league teams LSU will face this season, seven are ranked in preseason top 25 polls including four squads (Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss) in the top 10.
Have at least one month (besides the two-week February schedule) losing two or fewer games: Four of Mainieri’s five CWS teams enjoyed one month of winning just about every game.
The 2017 squad went 13-2 in May, the 2015 team was 15-2 in April, the 2013 team was 19-1 in March, the 2009 national championship squad was 7-1 in June and the 2008 team was 16-0 in May, the only non-February perfect month in Mainieri’s 12 seasons to date.
“We need to figure out a way to click as soon as possible,” Duplantis said. “I remember our 2017 team, like this team, had a nice mix of old guys and young guys. We went through some struggles that year at mid-season.”