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LSU's Cole Freeman, left, watches as Kramer Robertson throws to first base as the Tigers play their first spring scrimmage, Friday, January 27, 2017, before the start of baseball season at LSU's Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field in Baton Rouge, La.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

When Alex Lange throws the first pitch of the LSU baseball season, he’ll probably have five high school shortstops playing defense behind him.

Count ‘em off: Kramer Robertson, the actual shortstop; second baseman Cole Freeman; third baseman Josh Smith; first baseman Jake Slaughter; and right fielder Greg Deichmann.

A slow smile spread across coach Paul Mainieri’s face when he was asked about this defensive orientation.

“They’re the best athletes,” Mainieri said. “Usually, the best athletes on a high school baseball team play shortstop.”

Mainieri’s preference for high school shortstops is also indicative of the way the game has changed in the past two decades, shifting from LSU’s gorilla-ball heyday under coach Skip Bertman to the more modern version that relies on pitching and defense.

“This is the way I feel: Your pitching has to be really consistent; your hitting can come and go on each day — if the other team’s pitcher is really outstanding, he can shut you down — but the only way your own pitching can be really good is if your defense can be counted on every day,” Mainieri said.

“In the old days, Skip might’ve been able to play a guy who wasn’t a real outstanding player at third base because he’s going to hit 20 home runs during the season as part of the 150 home runs they’ll hit as a team. Now, we’re lucky if we hit 50. ... It’s just the nature of the game now. So you have to have good defense.”

Of course, the players have to be competent at the plate. Slaughter has never played first base in his life, but after losing out on a competition with Smith at third base this fall, Mainieri wanted to find a way to get his bat into the lineup.

It also doesn’t hurt that Slaughter is athletic at first base, giving LSU high school shortstops at all four spots on the infield.

“When you have high school shortstops that are good athletes with quick feet, good hands, good throwing arms, accurate throwing arms, your chances of being consistent on defense is a big factor in you being able to win games on a consistent basis,” Mainieri said.

BUSH MAKING PROGRESS

Left-handed reliever Nick Bush, who missed last season while recovering from an injury, threw an inning during LSU’s intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday.

At media day last week, Mainieri said Bush had not progressed as he had hoped, but it appears the past week went better for the redshirt freshman.

“Still a work in progress, but I think he’s getting closer,” Mainieri said. “He’s closer than I would’ve thought he was if you would’ve asked me 10 days ago. ... He pitched yesterday and it wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, like he can be, but he was up to 89 miles an hour and the ball was coming out of his hand pretty good.

“He’s past any structural problems with his arm. It’s just kind of working his way through the scar tissue.”

Since it has been more than two years since Bush played competitively, Mainieri said he will proceed with caution.

“We’ve got to be a little patient with him,” Mainieri said. “Certainly yesterday gave us a lot of hope.”

LINEUP SHUFFLE

Mainieri is using preseason practice to tinker with his lineup. He changed things around earlier this week with positive results.

“We’d been using Freeman first, (Antoine) Duplantis second and then Robertson and Deichmann,” Mainieri said. “Yesterday, I put Robertson back at the top of the order with Freeman two and Deichmann up to the three hole. It looked pretty good. The question then becomes who hits fourth and fifth, then?

“Nothing is etched in stone; you know that with me. ... We’re constantly going to do what we need to do to give ourselves the best chance to win on a given day.”

LIMITED WORKLOAD?

Mainieri said Thursday that ace pitcher Alex Lange would indeed start the season opener Feb. 17. He also hinted that Lange, who has topped 100 innings each season in college, might not go very long on opening night.

He said Lange might max out at five innings on opening night, then added: “It might even be a predetermined three innings, maybe four. I’m not sure; we’ll see where he is.”

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.