Paul Mainieri insists no starting job is ever locked up, not even during the season.
But nearly two weeks into fall practice, LSU’s baseball coach is starting to see the pieces of his young team come together. Leaders have emerged at the positions Mainieri wants shored up first: freshman Trey Dawson at shortstop and junior Cole Freeman at third base.
“Right now, the early returns say to me that Freeman and Dawson are a notch above everybody else as far as candidates to play on the left side of the infield,” Mainieri said.
The coach praised Dawson’s defense and estimated the error he made during Thursday night’s scrimmage was his first of fall ball. Mainieri compared the “scrappy” Freeman to former LSU third baseman and MLB draft pick Tyler Hanover.
But don’t rule out the rest of the field just yet.
Mainieri mentioned true freshman O’Neal Lochridge and junior Kramer Robertson as players still in the mix on the left side of the infield. The coach said Robertson has looked particularly good at second base after sliding over from shortstop, where he played all last week.
Sophomore Greg Deichmann has made strides at third base as well, Mainieri said, but he moved over to first after sophomore Bryce Jordan suffered a torn meniscus Sept. 30.
“I want to take a good, hard look at him as a first baseman and see if that improvement defensively can translate into him being an adequate first baseman for us,” Mainieri said.
With only one returning everyday starter, virtually every spot in the lineup is up for grabs for a roster littered with true freshmen and junior-college transfers. But Mainieri is determined to secure the left side of the infield before anything else is settled.
Junior outfielder Jake Fraley, the lone starting position player back from last year’s squad, has enjoyed the fierce competition among his young teammates this fall.
“They’re doing awesome. They look great,” Fraley said. “Every single day, they’re coming out and working hard, always moving and looking to learn something new.
“All these new guys, the freshmen and JUCO guys are all very good baseball players. Anyone who comes out here and watches can notice that. They’re very smooth defensively, and they know how to swing the bat.”
Healthy Latz turning heads
Those who attended LSU’s scrimmage Thursday night were treated to a pitchers’ duel between sophomore ace Alex Lange and junior Jared Poché.
The Tigers’ top two pitchers threw three innings each and combined for only one earned run, which Poché surrendered. Lange, College Baseball’s Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2015, notched three strikeouts despite issuing a walk and throwing a wild pitch.
“Those two guys are the least of my worries,” Mainieri said with a chuckle.
What Mainieri is worried about, though, is finding reliable third and fourth starting pitchers. Redshirt freshman Jake Latz just might be fit for the job.
“He looks like a guy that could be a dominating starting pitcher for us,” Maineri said. “He still hasn’t won anything by any stretch of the imagination. But you can dream that if he keeps improving at the rate he’s shown so far and stays healthy and gets good command of his pitches, this kid has a chance to be pretty good.”
Latz redshirted last year after experiencing a stress reaction in his left (throwing) elbow during the fall. After months of rehab, he said he’s back to full health and has felt that way since late in the summer.
Coaches tried to get Latz back in pitching form toward the end of last season. He said his elbow held up well in the extended bullpens he threw, but he “didn’t feel quite right” and never made it onto the mound.
But that’s all in the past now.
Latz, who has thrown twice in fall ball, is essentially back where he was a year ago: a talented freshman vying for a starting role. Mainieri is hopeful the southpaw can stay healthy this time around, but Latz is just happy to be out on the field again.
“I finally get to come out and live the dream of pitching on the mound out here at LSU,” Latz said. “That’s what I came here to do. It feels good to just feel good for once, to just go out there and pitch the way I know how to.”