In the middle innings of Tuesday’s fall-ending, 12-inning scrimmage at Alex Box Stadium, Mike Papierski was given another chance.
These scrimmages often buck baseball norms. Runners clearly out are sometimes called safe, while at-bats and innings can extend beyond the four-ball or three-out threshold to prioritize putting a young Tigers offense in pressure situations against a veteran pitching staff.
That’s where Papierski – pegged to be LSU’s starting catcher – found himself Tuesday, with a runner in scoring position and less than two outs after some adjusting kept the inning going. Papierski bounced out, not an uncommon sight from the fall given the steadiness of the returning pitchers. And it showcased what coach Paul Mainieri felt throughout the fall: the offense is still growing, but the pitching it’s facing is aiding the maturation.
“If we were crushing our pitching,” Mainieri said, “I’d be a lot more concerned about our team’s chances to win in the spring.”
Ending his ninth fall as the Tigers’ skipper, Mainieri can’t specify exactly what he’s looking for when the Purple/Gold World Series begins Wednesday afternoon at Alex Box Stadium — only wishing the three-game series is competitive and fans come out to create an intense environment.
The six-inning games won’t likely have the aforementioned oddities unless extenuating circumstances arise, but the hope is still to replicate those same situations Papierski and the rest of the LSU offense found themselves in.
“Guys that need to be table-setters are starting to have an understanding of what they have to do to get on base and steal bases,” said LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro. “Guys that are going to hit in the middle of the order are having an understanding of what they need to do to drive runs in and being aggressive. It’s a lot of new players, a lot of young guys that are having more success as the fall’s gone on.”
Cannizaro was quick to credit that pitching staff, which returns 14 arms who made an appearance last season and adds Jake Latz’s now-healthy left arm that’s wowed coaches throughout the fall.
Couple that experience with pitching coach Alan Dunn’s crafty pitch calling – he’s been calling fastballs in off-speed counts and off-speed pitches in fastball counts throughout the fall – and the young Tiger hitters have had to adjust pitch-by-pitch.
“Some of these young kids have never seen anything like that before,” Mainieri said. “So you expect the pitching to dominate. You hope the pitching dominates.”
The offensive results, though encouraging and gradual, haven’t always resulted in stats. Hard-hit balls often found gloves or foul territory, leading Cannizaro to preach a “win the at-bat” mentality, focusing on fundamentals like staying short to the ball, using all parts of the field and jumping on hittable fastballs.
Tuesday personified Cannizaro’s claims. Through the first eight innings of the 12-inning game, one run had scored. But freshman Antoine Duplantis banged out four hits – including two doubles – while classmate Trey Dawson laced a triple. Jake Fraley added a home run to right-center in the later innings of a 4-2 game that lasted 11 2/3 innings.
“You can’t look at it just in the total big picture, you have to pick the little things along the way that you feel good about,” Mainieri said. “There’s enough good things that happened throughout the fall, including today, that have me really optimistic and hopeful for the spring.”
Purple and Gold World Series
Game 1: 4:30 p.m. Wednesday
Game 2: 6 p.m. Thursday
Game 3: 7 p.m. Friday
*Each game is six innings long with starting pitchers lasting no more than three innings.
Wednesday: John Valek vs. Caleb Gilbert
Valek’s a crafty, veteran left-hander who transferred after Akron cut its baseball program, tops out at 85 with the fastball but has a wicked changeup and off-speed pitches delivered from an unconventional arm angle. Gilbert sat low 90s in his fall appearances, topping at 93 with the fastball while mixing in a few nice curveballs at 79 mph.
Thursday: Jake Godfrey vs. Riley Smith
Godfrey couldn’t quite settle into a role last season, but is in the mix as either a third weekend starter or a midweek guy. Smith, a junior college transfer, topped at 92 in the fall while struggling a bit to command his secondary pitches, though his changeup was particularly effective.
Friday: Alex Lange vs. Jared Poche
The premier matchup of the series pits the Tigers two returning starters in the finale. Lange sits low 90s consistently and has mixed in a hard changeup to look nearly unhittable in the fall. Poche, too, has the look of a veteran who can steady the rotation.