Paul Mainieri huddled with his team, then cuddled with his grandchildren.
LSU’s baseball coach was in his element. Friday night’s chilling rain and Saturday morning’s gray gloom had blown away, and with it the promise of a fresh, green new baseball season.
It wasn’t as scripted. LSU was supposed to open with Air Force on Friday night. The program that Mainieri coached before heading to Notre Dame in the 1980s was one he very much wanted to play.
But all ended up as he ultimately wanted: with a win, a 9-0 seven-inning shutout of the disciplined but overmatched Army Black Knights.
“You never know about these opening games,” Mainieri said, pausing between talking to his team and playing with his grandkids to engage in one of his other favorite pastimes: talking to media. “I’ve been doing this 35 years, and you never know what’ll happen. You saw good teams (Friday) get one-hit, shut out, beat at home. I thought we looked like a veteran squad out there.”
As he walked Brad Garafola Jr. to the pitching mound, LSU baseball star shortstop Kramer Rob…
Mainieri has reached his February quota of you-never-knows to suit his taste, thank you very much.
He got there Feb. 7 when projected starting designated hitter Bryce Jordan blew out his knee chasing down what now looks like a very expensive foul ball near the end of a scrimmage.
Mainieri vaulted past his threshold three days later when right fielder Greg Deichmann was hit in the right cheek by a pitch that left three fractures and a dent in his face and required surgery.
The prospect of losing both players — top-of-the-pop charts when it comes to producing power in the LSU lineup — would be like trying to win next Sunday’s Daytona 500 with an engine that goes two cylinders down right before the green flag waves.
“When that happened to him, my heart stopped,” Mainieri said of Deichmann. “For the kid’s sake, first of all, but second of all to lose the three- and four-hole hitters off a team that’s pretty highly touted. That’s a pretty big blow; I don’t care who you are. With the scholarship limitations, you don’t have an unending plethora of guys who can hit.”
No, it’s not like LSU can call up a promising slugger from the minors. Fortunately for the Tigers, Deichmann’s injury wasn’t in a place that left him with blurry vision or a jaw that had to be wired shut. It also didn’t do anything to put a crack in Deichmann’s competitive zeal. After his successful surgery Sunday, Deichmann would have started even if LSU had played Friday night as scheduled.
“People were probably wondering if he was rushing back,” Mainieri said. “I couldn’t have kept Greg Deichmann out of the lineup with a crowbar today, I can assure you.”
While Mainieri couldn’t keep Deichmann off the field, Army starter Matt Ball couldn’t keep him in the ballpark. Looking like a tight end with his football-like face mask bolted onto his purple batting helmet, Deichmann’s first at-bat resulted in a mortar shot an Army man could grudgingly appreciate, just a few feet right of the batter’s eye backdrop in straightaway center. Deichmann’s two-run blast traveled 414 feet, bringing home Kramer Robertson to give starter Alex Lange a 3-0 first-inning lead.
“Whenever I see Greg at the plate, you get kind of nervous,” Lange said. “You never know when he’s going to turn and burn one on you and hit one in the dugout 140 (mph) off the bat, because he just rakes. You always wait for Greg just to happen, kind of like (Alex) Bregman.”
“For him to hit one out in his first at-bat, he’s 'The Natural,' ” Mainieri gushed.
"The Natural" also made a natural mistake in the second game. Deichmann over-ran a pop fly down the right-field line by Army shortstop Josh White that dropped between him and second baseman Cole Freeman for a two-base error. That was the only blemish on a dominant seven-inning gem for senior starting pitcher Jared Poché, who threw LSU's first individual no-hitter since 1979 in a 6-0 victory.
Freshman first baseman Jake Slaughter also homered to left in the fourth inning of the opener, showing the Tigers have some power in the lineup besides Deichmann. But perhaps the other most interesting thing that happened for LSU offensively was, after leadoff batter Cole Freeman started the game with a single, Mainieri had him stealing second on the first pitch to Antoine Duplantis.
It was just a moment, but Mainieri seemed to be sending a message. Former hitting coach Andy Cannizaro, now the coach at Mississippi State, was credited with a lot of LSU’s aggressive baserunning tactics during his three seasons under Mainieri. It’s entirely possible the coach wanted to show he can be aggressive, too.
Deichmann's big bat and Poché's stifling pitching aside, it's still just day one of the 2017 season. Long, long way between the first day and being one of the teams still standing on the last day of the College World Series championship final.
But it was the kind of start Mainieri wanted to see, with no more nasty surprises.