For the past three seasons, the left side of LSU’s infield has been in the capable hands of shortstop Austin Nola and third baseman Tyler Hanover.
But what could fairly be described as the Nola-Hanover era came to an end when both ran out of eligibility after last season. When the Tigers host Maryland to open the season Friday night in Alex Box Stadium, not only will the left side of the infield feature new starters, it will have first-year players.
Meet Alex Bregman and Christian Ibarra. They’re not the new Nola and Hanover, but they are the new left side of the infield.
Nola’s spot has been inherited by freshman Bregman, the marquee recruit in this year’s class. Hanover’s spot has been inherited by a less-heralded but more-experienced player in junior-college transfer Ibarra.
“I’m used to seeing Nola and Hanover over there,” senior first baseman Mason Katz said. “But I’m used to coming to practice and seeing our shortstop out there doing extra work to get better, and Bregman does that just like Austin did. He really works hard.
“Ibarra can hit, but he’s a really good defensive player. Plus he’s short (5-foot-7), so that shouldn’t make a difference,” Katz said, referring to Hanover’s diminutive size.
Bregman will bat third and is expected to add pop to the LSU batting order, though it’s understood that his defense won’t match Nola’s. Coach Paul Mainieri has routinely said Nola is the best defensive shortstop he has coached in 30 years, and he said Bregman is adequate and likely to get better defensively.
Though he’s from Albuquerque, N.M., Bregman called playing at LSU “a lifelong dream.” He followed the Tigers’ success over the years, especially the most recent College World Series title in 2009.
“I think he’s a really mature and advanced hitter for his age,” hitting coach Javi Sanchez said of Bregman. “He’s got a great feel for the strike zone and a great understanding of the game. Hitting comes very, very natural to him.”
Hitting might not come as naturally to Ibarra, who came in with above-average defensive credentials, but his hitting did catch Sanchez’s eye in the fall.
“I definitely placed a value on his glove and his defensive ability to play the left side of the infield,” Sanchez said of Ibarra’s recruitment. “I thought the bat was going to be a lighter aspect of his game, but he stuck his nose in during the fall and demonstrated some qualities that good hitters have. He stays on through the ball. He’s got some juice for a little guy, he’s got some bat speed, and he’s not afraid to go deep into counts.”
Katz will play first this year after splitting time between there and the outfield last season. The Tigers’ top source of power (13 home runs) a year ago has moved to the fifth spot in the batting order as Bregman steps into the three hole.
But Mainieri said the key to how far LSU goes this season could be determined largely by how much a pair of juniors who are third-year starters develop: second baseman JaCoby Jones and catcher Ty Ross.
“It’s time for them to really emerge. This is it,” Mainieri said. “I highly expect this to be the last year for both of them. I expect them to be drafted and go into professional baseball this year. If both of those kids can take their game to another level, it could be the difference for our team.”
Jones (.253, four homers, 29 RBIs last season) is expected to bat sixth, and Ross (.292, three homers, 41 RBIs) will be somewhere in the bottom third, but Mainieri thinks both can be significant run-producers.
“We’ve been starting here for the last two years, and it’s our junior year now,” Ross said. “So we have to step up as leaders and lead the way for this whole team along with Mason Katz and (outfielder) Raph Rhymes.”
Jones said he has been working on shortening his swing, especially with two strikes on him, to try and cut down on his strikeouts (47 in 245 at-bats last season).
“I’m going to the opposite field a lot more,” Jones said. “I’m recognizing pitches earlier and not trying to pull everything. I’m a lot more comfortable. I used to panic when I’d get two strikes, now I trust my hands. I know my hands are fast, and it’s paid off for me.”
Sanchez said Jones looks more mature than he did a year ago.
“Last year when he’d get behind 0-2 or 1-2, he’d chase a slider in the dirt,” Sanchez said. “Now he’s driving it through the infield.”
Mainieri said he knows he’ll have to live with Jones’ strikeouts; but if there are fewer of them, it will be a good sign for LSU.
“When you swing hard, sometimes you’re not going to make as consistent contact as somebody like (Rhymes), who just slaps the ball all over field,” Mainieri said. “But there’s no doubt JaCoby has gotten better. If he puts it all together, he’ll put this team on his shoulders and carry it to (the College World Series). He’s capable of it.”
Senior Casey Yocom provides depth at second, third and short. Sophomore Tyler Moore from Dunham is Ross’ primary backup and can play at either corner. Newcomers Chris Chinea and Michael Barash also provide depth at first and catcher, and like Moore, might see action as the designated hitter from time to time.