Three freshmen and a junior-college transfer strolled to the plate.
Alex Lange was 60 feet, 6 inches away, the reigning national Freshman Pitcher of the Year in his third inning. He’d faced the minimum to that point, a power 93-mph fastball and buried breaking ball his weapons of choice.
But freshman O’Neal Lochridge ran the count full to lead off the inning, eventually drawing a walk while watching changeups that nipped the strike zone.
Classmate Brennan Breaux did the same three batters later. Sandwiched between them was junior-college transfer Jordan Romero, who got ahead in the count 2-0 before driving a fastball off the wall for a double.
Bases loaded and trailing in Game 3 of the Purple-Gold World Series, freshman Antoine Duplantis crushed Lange’s first pitch, missing a grand slam to right field by a foot. He settled for a two-RBI double. With Duplantis’ speed, it could have easily been a triple — perhaps even an inside-the-park grand slam, had a base-running miscommunication not occurred.
“I don’t even think,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “they’re close to being the same human beings as they were six weeks ago.”
Tasked with replacing eight of nine position players from last season’s College World Series team, Mainieri wrapped fall practice Monday night with a team huddle on the mound at the conclusion of the Purple-Gold World Series.
Those on the Purple team wore white championship shirts and posed for a picture.
Inside the huddle, Mainieri asked his team to look back six weeks ago, when a collection of high school standouts and junior-college transfers came together for the first time, without any inkling of what it took to win at the Southeastern Conference level.
“A lot slower,” Jake Fraley said of the game at the high school level. “Everything just comes to you, you don’t have to go that extra mile in high school and if you don’t you can still succeed. You can still win, still think you’re a winner, still think you’re doing everything right.”
So the task was set for fall practice — establish an edge. Sure, the newcomers were accustomed to winning — Breaux and Lochridge won state championships at St. Thomas More, and Romero had one at Catholic High, along with a Junior College World Series appearance at LSU-Eunice.
That didn’t set them apart, though. Reading an LSU baseball recruiting class’ accolades is a chore — a welcome one for Mainieri and recruiting coordinator Andy Cannizaro — but it’s a list is so long and with so many superlatives, it’s difficult to discern any weaknesses among the brood.
Until they arrive at Alex Box Stadium.
“Everybody was the No. 1 (player) on their high school team,” Fraley said. “Coming to college, you have to go the extra mile; otherwise you’re going to get hit to the ground real fast. You’re not going to succeed, not going to win. You have to find your edge that helps you and puts you above everyone else. It doesn’t come as easy.”
How does one teach, or coach, an edge? The concept of winning is inherent — one team scores more than the other — but what makes it such a learning concept in college baseball?
Cannizaro, a veteran of successful high school, college and Major League Baseball teams, has a simple formula.
“Put them in situations like they were in the last couple days,” Cannizaro said. “Down late in the game against Alex Lange and see young kids go up there and have seven, eight, nine, 10-pitch walks and then see young guys hit him off the wall.
“The more success we have against our own pitching staff that’s one of the best in the country, the more that confidence level of our young guys continues to rise. The learning curve has really sped up by the quality of arms we faced.”
It was never hopeless, Fraley said. He told Mainieri and Cannizaro he thought this batch of newcomers were more polished when they arrived than last year’s class.
And they’ve only gotten better.
Fraley recalled some struggles early against the veteran LSU pitchers — an expected outcome — but it was the young guys’ reactions to the failure that changed.
“You can see the strides they’ve taken mentally,” Fraley said. “When they fail, they come back the next at-bat and have a great at-bat whereas in the beginning they didn’t. You can see the constant work they put in and they understand that they have to change that mindset and they’re starting to realize that.”