What does LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri want most for Christmas?
“I wish there were a couple more numbers up on that Intimidator,” Mainieri said, referring to the huge billboard behind right field in Alex Box Stadium that lists the Tigers’ six College World Series champions.
For the moment, he’ll happily settle for a healthier pitching staff than the one LSU had in September when the Tigers began fall practice.
The news on LSU’s sore arms was mostly positive Wednesday as Mainieri spoke to reporters after addressing a packed Baton Rouge Rotary Club meeting at Drusilla Place.
“Most everybody is coming along,” said Mainieri, who is preparing for his 13th season at LSU. “Many of the guys who were hurt in the fall, their progress has been really good: Caleb Gilbert, Cole Henry, Matthew Beck looked really tremendous.”
Gilbert, a senior right-hander, had shoulder surgery with orthopedic surgeon and LSU graduate James Andrews last summer. Gilbert sat out fall practice, as did Beck, a junior right-hander, with elbow trouble. Henry, a freshman right-hander, had an upper arm stress reaction.
Mainieri also said sophomore right-hander Ma’Khail Hilliard, who was shut down with shoulder tightness late last season, has been throwing for six weeks pain-free.
“I expect he’ll be ready and rarin’ to go,” he said.
Sophomore right-hander A.J. Labas was bothered by the same sort of shoulder problem as Hilliard, but Mainieri described his lack of progress as “baffling.”
“Labas still has a ways to go,” he said.
The news was also not good on sophomore right-hander Nick Storz and freshman left-hander Easton McMurray, whom Mainieri said “is still struggling a little bit.”
“It will be a long shot for Storz to pitch this year,” Mainieri said. “I’m not ruling it out, but it would be real late if it would happen.”
Mainieri said catcher Saul Garza, a sophomore transfer from Howard College in Texas, will be ready to hit when the season begins Feb. 15 at Alex Box Stadium against UL-Monroe. But he will likely not catch until March because of a torn meniscus.
Mainieri said when doctors went in to repair Garza’s knee, they found a previously undiagnosed torn meniscus, requiring sutures instead of cutting out the damaged tissue.
With Garza likely limited until late March, Mainieri said sophomore Brock Mathis, a transfer from Northwest Florida State, will “have to be a warrior” behind the plate. He said he also sent freshman Drew Bianco, son of Ole Miss coach and former LSU catcher Mike Bianco, home to Oxford with his catcher’s gear so he can be ready to catch some games early.
After signing what Collegiate Baseball and D1Baseball.com rated as the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, Mainieri has been back in those players' homes in recent weeks, extolling the virtues of attending college instead of going straight to pro ball.
He said of the four teams that made the AL and NL championship series — Boston, Houston, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Dodgers — 51 of their 100 players came through college, with only 18 coming straight from high school. The rest were foreign-born players.
“It’s not like you’re choosing college instead of professional baseball,” Mainieri said. “You’re choosing college and professional baseball. So I go out and talk to them about what I think is the best route and what the statistics show.
“There is something happening in college that is helping these players. Statistics don’t lie.”
Mainieri said construction on the new weight room and locker room for former players behind right field should be completed by April 1. LSU players currently lift weights at LSU’s football complex. … Mainieri told the crowd that 21 players the past 11 years who signed pro contracts before graduating have returned to LSU to finish their degrees. He also said 120 of LSU’s 121 players the past 12 years have graduated or gone on to pro baseball or both. … Mainieri said he believes a proposal to add a third paid assistant for college baseball will soon pass. He said the measure has the support of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who does not like the concept of volunteer assistants who aren’t “necessarily an employee of the university.”
The last word
“This season will be an exciting one. I think we’ve got a chance (to win the College World Series) this year. When the preseason polls come out, I wouldn’t be surprised if we aren’t a top-five team.”