LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri leaned on the railing just outside the home dugout in Alex Box Stadium before the Tigers’ first fall practice of the year Monday.
It was the first time he had been dressed in his full Tigers uniform since his squad’s NCAA tournament regional loss to Houston on June 2.
On the diamond across from him, new faces began taking ground balls in the infield.
Former Tigers third baseman Christian Ibarra watched from the dugout as freshman Greg Deichmann scooped baseballs on one hop and fired to Grayson Byrd, a fellow rookie, at second base.
Three positions — third base, first base and catcher — will be available for the taking when practice resumes again in the spring. For now, Mainieri is simply weighing his options at the hot corner.
“I don’t take third base for granted,” he said. “It’s a very underrated position. We need to find somebody who can get the job done for us defensively. I don’t expect anyone to be as good as Ibarra was. Ibarra was the best defensive third baseman I’ve had in 32 years of coaching prior to this year.”
Last season, then-junior Conner Hale joined the program as a former third baseman at the State College of Florida. After a season split between second and first base, all signs point to Hale returning to his old position.
Hale was impressive with the bat over the summer in the Cape Cod League, hitting .327 with four home runs and a league-leading 38 RBIs.
Because of his success at the plate, Hale said defense was his primary focus as fall practice approached. He played third base all summer, and Ibarra has been helping Hale transition back to his former spot.
“(Ibarra) is probably one of the best defensive third basemen (at LSU),” Hale said. “He’s got really good hands, and I’ve been trying to get advice from him over there.”
When last year’s fall practice opened, it was clear to Mainieri that then-freshman outfielder Jake Fraley wasn’t quite ready to step to the plate in Alex Box.
Fraley struggled physically and mentally as he squared off against LSU’s pitching staff during the early days of camp, and he slowly slid down the depth chart and out of contention for a starting outfield job.
Then he went back home to Middletown, Delaware.
“I was talking to (former LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook about) how poorly Fraley looked in the fall last year,” Mainieri said. “It’s like he went home over Christmas break and the light switch went on.”
The rookie proceeded to become a staple in the Tigers’ lineup throughout Southeastern Conference play, finishing the year hitting .372 with three home runs and 29 RBIs.
Fraley said the jitters he felt heading into his first camp are long gone.
“I’ve still got to win a spot, and I still have to win left field, but I know exactly what to expect,” Fraley said. “There’s no surprises. I have the confidence early, and I have the experience under my belt.”
Reynolds to miss fall
The Tigers will go through the first few weeks of camp without two pitchers who could be in the running for a rotation spot.
Sophomore right-hander Russell Reynolds suffered damage to his left elbow after falling from the back of a pickup truck this past weekend. Reynolds will miss the rest of fall practice, and Mainieri said he was unsure whether the Baton Rouge native would need surgery.
Senior lefty Kyle Bouman also missed the opener of fall camp after suffering a concussion off the field. He is expected to rejoin the team in roughly a week, Mainieri said.
Replacing closer Joe Broussard, who had eight saves with a team-low 1.05 ERA last season, likely will be one of Mainieri’s goals when spring camp opens.
Over the course of fall practices, though, the returning bullpen arms will get a chance to make an early push for the role.
Left-handers Bouman, Zac Person, Hunter Devall and Henri Faucheux and right-handers Alden Cartwright, Parker Bugg and Brady Domangue, all of whom logged 19 innings or more in 2014, return to what will be a crowded, experienced bullpen.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who can fill that role right now,” Domangue said. “It’s probably one of the most competitive falls I’ve ever been a part of. The talent we have is exciting. Any role that’s open right now, there’s a big competition going on.”