Paul Mainieri ticks through the lineage of what he likes to call “Shortstop U.”
The LSU baseball coach starts with a reminder to not forget about Michael Hollander, his first shortstop, whom he considers an underrated player. But it is Hollander who marks the dividing line where the position truly blossomed.
There was DJ LeMahieu, who went on to become a Gold Glove second baseman and National League batting champion. And, in a true testament to how good the shortstop play has been at this place, the future Gold Glover moved to second base in favor of a freshman.
That freshman was the slick-fielding Austin Nola, whom Mainieri insists is the best shortstop he has ever coached. The Baton Rouge native was smooth in the space between second and third base. He spent four years convincing LSU faithful that wizardry does not (seemingly) require much effort.
Nola passed the baton to Alex Bregman, the burgeoning pro star and heart and soul of two College World Series teams at LSU. Mainieri still has fun needling Bregman by saying he was almost as good as Nola.
“He would get upset with me about that,” Mainieri laughed.
Bregman gave way to Kramer Robertson, who may have carried the torch with more panache than all of them. He had the long hair and the custom cleats and the passion that inspired either adoration or anger. He was a rock star, and he had the game to back it up.
“And now,” Mainieri said, “Josh.”
That is Josh Smith, and he has to be feeling the weight of all this, right?
After all, this is Baton Rouge native Josh Smith. This is the one who was born two months after LSU won its fourth College World Series championship, in 1997. His coming of age coincided with this golden era of LSU shortstops.
He was 10 years old when LeMahieu was the shortstop during that magical 2008 run to Omaha, Nebraska. Nola, who shares a deeper connection with Smith than most, carried him into his teenage years. Bregman took over when Smith was about to reach driving age and was developing a reputation as a prospect.
And it was Robertson — his teammate last season, when Smith manned third base — who explained to Smith what it takes to play shortstop at LSU.
“Talent-wise, I don’t worry about him at all,” Robertson said. “It’s just all that comes along with being the LSU shortstop, the pressure, the expectation.”
This is 10 years of uninterrupted excellence at baseball’s most challenging infield position, and the burden is falling on the guy who grew up in the shadow of it all to keep it going.
Pressure? Yes, for sure, there is pressure.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Mainieri said. “That is a big responsibility.”
But, then again, this is Josh Smith. Ask the people who know him closely — those who have been the target of his dry, cutting humor, those who watched him grow up into that LSU shortstop role that always felt like the destination — and they will tell you the weight he is supposed to feel does not register.
“That’s the beauty of him,” said Brad Bass, his Catholic High School coach. “He’s just a kid playing baseball.”
Jake Slaughter certainly does not look like a freshman anymore.
Ride the wave
Picture this: Word starts to get around about this hot shot local infielder who has been playing up with the older kids since before he learned the alphabet. He is about to be the first freshman position player to start on Catholic’s varsity team since Nola, and right before that freshman year, he attended an LSU baseball camp.
The first thing the campers did was take batting practice off a pitching machine, each receiving two rounds of eight swings.
“The first five pitches he swung at he missed — in each round,” said his father, Scott Smith.
Scott Smith was overcome with empathy as he sat in the bleachers, feeling so bad for his son that he wanted to crawl under his seat. Bass, one of those people talking about how good Smith was, had a similar reaction.
“I was looking for somewhere to go stick my head,” Bass said.
The poor performance was so memorable LSU actually turned it into a cautionary tale for future generations of campers.
“(Former LSU assistant) Will Davis said, when he was still here, he would tell all the campers this story about this kid named Josh Smith who came here and just blew it, so don’t worry about it if you came here and didn’t do your best,” Scott Smith said.
And here is where that becomes notable.
Scott Smith watched for the disappointment to wash over his son. He scanned his face for the telltale signs of frustration, he waited to see the slumped shoulders, for the typical responses of a teenager who crumbled under pressure.
It never came.
One of Smith’s greatest attributes — one that will surely help him handle the expectations of carrying on this line of great shortstops at LSU — is his even-keel demeanor.
“You never know what can happen,” Smith said. “Just always ride the wave, don’t get too high and too low.”
He emerged from that poor camp performance to start on Catholic’s state championship team as a freshman — taking over at shortstop midway through the year and hitting leadoff.
The first freshman to start for the Catholic varsity since Nola shared the smooth trait.
“His nickname was 'J-Smooth' all through high school,” Bass said. “That’s how he is; he’s a cool dude who plays as slick as you’ve ever seen.
The word about the slick infielder did not dissipate after that poor camp but intensified as Smith developed into a legitimate pro baseball prospect. Scouts locked their eyes on him at Catholic’s practices and games during his senior season. Everyone heard the talk of the big sums of money that would be thrown at him to lure him away from LSU.
“He never really got caught up in that,” Bass said. “He just enjoyed his senior year ... played the game he loved and never made it more than that.”
Perhaps it was easier for Smith to be that way because of how LSU is woven into the fabric of the community in which he was raised. Smith’s baseball mission was to play well enough to receive a scholarship offer from the place he loved.
“Just from osmosis, just from being in this region, this area, LSU drove him,” Scott Smith said.
“You’ve got to think,” Bass said, “when they were babies, they’re seeing the highlights of the Warren Morris homer and all the special moments at LSU, and when you’re a kid in the backyard, you imagine yourself being in the purple and gold. That’s a special thing.”
Smith wanted to be Austin Nola, the silky smooth Catholic alumnus who turned shortstop into an art form at LSU.
The plan had been worked up: commit on the spot, no questions asked, as soon as that LSU offer was in his hands.
“And that’s what I did,” Smith said.
Meet the new Matthew Beck, same as the old Matthew Beck — just not the one LSU fans are probably familiar with.
A decade of excellence at such a demanding position as shortstop is not achieved simply by anointing the Next Big Thing. At LSU, it is earned under Mainieri’s exacting eye.
“It’s definitely not a coincidence that we’ve had such great players playing shortstop since coach Mainieri has been there,” Robertson said.
The LSU coach demands the unattainable from his shortstops, expecting perfection in a sport that does not allow it. Robertson said Mainieri ramps up the pressure in practices to such a degree that the games feel like a relief. And Mainieri keeps the pressure applied with competition.
Before Smith began his first fall as the presumptive replacement for Robertson as LSU shortstop, Mainieri had this to say: “Honestly, I’ll be disappointed if Josh Smith is not the best shortstop in the country, all around.”
By the end of the fall, Mainieri was publicly making the case for freshman Hal Hughes, a coach’s son with a brilliant glove.
“Part of it was challenging (Smith) and holding himself to a higher standard, and part of it was trying to be fair to Hal Hughes as well,” Mainieri said. “… I wanted to remind him of the standard we’re looking for.”
He was feeling out Smith, looking for the right button to push, and it appears he found what he was looking for. Smith is LSU’s undisputed starter at shortstop as the season approaches.
It is up to Smith, the native son, to carry the banner that has been growing heavier with each player's successive triumph. And maybe he is the exact right person for the job at this particular moment.
“I think a lot of guys fold under that kind of pressure, and those aren’t the kinds of guys that can play shortstop at LSU,” Robertson said. “He’s got the right personality.
“He’s not hiding from that or being afraid of it; he’s going to embrace those expectations. He’s going to embrace being the next one in line.”
Last season was a little nerve-wracking for Smith and his family, Scott Smith acknowledged.
It was the newness of everything. It was wearing the interlocking L-S-U logo in Alex Box Stadium for the first time. It was playing third base and being a college student. It was figuring everything out.
But when Scott Smith shows up to watch his son take his spot on that piece of dirt between second and third base? A space occupied by so many great players during his son’s lifetime? He does not expect the nerves to be there.
“To be honest with you, it’s going to be easier than last year,” Scott Smith said.
It feels natural, as though this is the way things were supposed to be.
LSU Shortstop Preview
4 Josh Smith, So., L/R, .281/.407/.409
3 Hal Hughes, Fr., R/R, No statistics
Top bat: Smith turned in a solid freshman season at the plate, but the expectation is for him to take a big step forward. Smith gave away too many at bats with lazy fly balls last season.
Top glove: Consider this a push. Smith played outstanding defense at third base a year ago, and shortstop is his more natural position. Hughes is right up there with him.
Final thoughts: The shortstop position looks to be in good hands the next two years with Smith, who should join the line of recent players at the position who have been strong both in the field and at the plate. An All-SEC season is within the realm of possibility.