Paul Mainieri gathered his team on the infield grass just beyond shortstop, instructing them to look up. Faces began to appear on the scoreboard in left field, just as they will when LSU opens its season Friday at Alex Box Stadium and a player enters the game or steps to the plate.
Walk-out songs blared. Future’s “March Madness” — Russell Reynolds’ tune of choice — was interrupted by the familiar train horn passing by The Intimidator in right field.
Alex Lange leaped in excitement, patting Reynolds on the shoulder as the horn sounded again.
The tactic served to soothe potential apprehension for a team trotting out eight new full-time starters against Cincinnati on Friday.
“You glance up and see a full stadium, just like it was every game,” starting pitcher Jared Poche’ said. “But it’s something about opening night. A lot of electricity in the air. Obviously the fans are excited, the players are even more excited and we got a few young guys that will probably have a few nerves going in.”
Poche’ stood with classmates Jake Fraley and Kramer Robertson in exclusive company. The only three players on the team that have started an opening night game, they weren’t wowed by the pregame videos that followed player introductions, complete with Jim Hawthorne’s call of the program’s six national championships.
Fraley, the team’s opening night center fielder, works to calm the nerves his pitcher spoke of. He’s stressed carrying practice to the game, reminding his teammates the game of baseball keeps the same rules regardless of the pageantry.
“They say it’s like something you’ve never experienced,” freshman Antoine Duplantis said. “And everyone’s going to be nervous, even the veterans that have been here three or four years.”
For one of those veterans, Friday caps an infernal week that ended a fantastic spring.
Robertson, the third-year player who’s wowed with the glove but has struggled to meet expectations throughout his career, took a nasty ground ball off the mouth Tuesday during infield practice, leaving the field with blood rushing from his lips.
His teeth, pushed back by the ball’s force, were wired later that day and he was fitted with a mouthpiece he’ll wear for four to six weeks.
“Poor kid, he’s been playing so well, had a great camp, so raring to go and ready to play outstanding baseball for us,” Mainieri said. “He really gets it. It’s taken a while for him to understand what his coach wants out of him and I think he totally understands now.”
Wednesday provided no reprieve. Robertson said he vomited 10 times, a side effect of his antibiotics, missed practice and required intravenous fluids when he arrived at the ballpark on Thursday.
“It’s been a week from hell,” Robertson said with a swollen lip. “I’m pretty ugly.”
“But I’m ready to go.”