FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — When Jake Slaughter was benched for the first time in his college career, the freshman first baseman thought it was the right move.
It happened last weekend after an 0-for-3 night in a shutout loss against Texas A&M. In that game, Slaughter struck out for the 31st time in 97 at bats and also grounded into a double play.
But to hear LSU coach Paul Mainieri tell it, it wasn’t just the results. It was the visible frustration from the results at the plate that was starting to take away from Slaughter’s ability in the field.
It was time to take a step back. Slaughter watched the last two games of the Texas A&M series from the bench.
“Sometimes when you’re not in the actual competition, you can clear your mind and see things a little more clearly,” Mainieri said. “It’s not the first time I’ve ever done this with a player. Sometimes you have to just be patient, even though you know that if you put him in there he might be able to do something great to help your team win.
“Sometimes the long-term value outweighs the short-term value.”
Slaughter put it this way, “Coach Mainieri wanted me to get a break and get in the cage and get my head right. I’m thankful. I think he made a good move.”
Mainieri has said many times during Slaughter’s short run with the team that the freshman first baseman was often going to produce at the extreme ends of the scales, and he’s been correct so far.
Slaughter was hitting .414 through February and looking very much the part of a middle-of-the-order type of hitter.
March was a different story. He went 15-68 (.221) in 18 March games, and he struck out more (23 times) than he reached base by hit or walk (18 times). His batting average dipped to .278.
“It’s frustrating when you’re trying to do a job for your team, and it just isn’t falling for you,” Slaughter said. “That’s the game of baseball. You have to stay even keel. There are ups and downs, and you’ve got to keep working hard.”
LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs said the staff reached the decision together that it was time Slaughter got a break from the lineup.
“You could tell how angry he was getting,” Gibbs said. “It was a good time to let him take a deep breath, get back in the cage, figure some stuff out.”
Gibbs said it’s all about making adjustments at this level, because Southeastern Conference programs are adept at quickly identifying the weaker aspects of a player’s swing, especially with freshmen who are facing this caliber of pitching for the first time.
So Gibbs and Slaughter put in the work to help Slaughter with make those adjustments. With the Texas A&M series having been completed Saturday, the two spent several hours in the cage together Sunday and Monday making appropriate tweaks.
Gibbs is hoping to see Slaughter start using the entire field. Slaughter said adjustments had to do with his hands and his “barrel position to have a more consistent bat path.”
It took a while for those adjustments to feel natural, but he was feeling confident the next time he got an at bat against live pitching.
Though Grambling assuredly doesn’t possess the type of pitchers Slaughter will see this weekend in Arkansas, the results were positive: He went 2-for-4 with an opposite field RBI single and he did not strike out.
“I felt like I really needed to make an adjustment, and first time coming out here on live pitching to try it, I felt like I was very smooth at the plate,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter was back in the lineup for Game 1 of LSU’s series against Arkansas, batting in the No. 7 spot. His benching was never meant to be long term, but LSU is hopeful the lesson struck the right chord.
“It’s a humbling game,” Mainieri said. “I still think Jake Slaughter is one of our best nine players. He’ll be in there. But he’s got to learn to handle those kinds of things so it doesn’t affect other aspects of the game for him.”