Aaron Palmer has recorded a hit in five of his past seven games, swinging a bat without using his left middle finger. On March 4, The University of New Orleans shortstop slid into second base during a 12-5 win against Pittsburgh, got up and found the finger dislocated, laying off to the side.
“He just grabbed back hold of it and snapped it back into place and has been playing ever since,” Privateers coach Blake Dean said.
“That’s just the kind of toughness these guys have.”
UNO, winner of just 14 games last season, won the next two games against Pitt, sweeping a school from a Power 5 conference for the first time since 1988. The Privateers took two of three from Sam Houston State the following weekend, marking their first Southland Conference series win since they joined the league in 2014.
Dean is the 28-year-old architect of the program’s stunning resurgence. He team comes into Alex Box Stadium for a game at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday against the Tigers.
Dean spent two years in pro baseball before returning to Baton Rouge, where he was LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s undergraduate assistant in 2013. He left after graduation to spend two seasons at UNO under legendary coach Ron Maestri, whom Dean replaced after his retirement.
“I have very fond feelings of (UNO),” said Mainieri, who played his final two collegiate seasons there. “Add to that Blake Dean, one of my favorite all-time players who contributed so much to our program here. ... I feel really good about Blake, the way he’s progressed as a coach and obviously he’s done a tremendous job over there (in) the first portion of the season.”
The two text often, Mainieri sending one to Dean after the Sam Houston State series congratulating him on his first conference series win as a coach.
The former power-hitting first baseman, who hit 56 career home runs at LSU — including the first in the history of the new Alex Box Stadium in 2009 — returns nearly the same lineup from a team that went 3-27 in Southland Conference play last season.
Dean added Palmer, 23-year-old journeyman catcher Kyle Bracey and his brother, Dakota Dean, also a former LSU player who was a junior college teammate of Palmer.
“Three tough individuals,” Blake said. “And it makes a huge difference. It takes pressure off my other guys that are in the lineup, and it makes things easier for me, to where I don’t always have to be the one barking at people and being the disciplinary-type guy when I have some guys that will hold each other accountable.”
Bracey paces a Privateers offense that hits .328 — no surprise considering their coach’s pedigree. Batting practices are often set to the latest rap hits and pump-up music, at the players’ request.
Blake Dean is the youngest coach in Division I baseball — a recruiting tool he often uses to lure high school talent, simply taking the prospects to a practice where these tunes blare.
The transition hasn’t come without learning. Those batting practices usually find Blake Dean, the team’s hitting coach last season, encouraging his offense to “take the pitchers down” and insisting “we’re not scoring enough.”
“I was always pushing for my position players to get better and whip up on my pitchers,” he said. “Then I’d go in my office and realize, ‘Well those pitchers are the ones I’m going to have during the season as well,’ so I had to just learn to kind of stay neutral and support both sides equal amounts.
“But at the end of the day, I’m still an offensive guy.”
He is also forthright.
Blake Dean didn’t expect success so quick, though Mainieri isn’t surprised — Blake Dean’s baseball prowess speaks for itself. The first-year coach spent his entire fall breaking his team down, seeing their limitations and how far he could realistically push this group that had absorbed so much losing.
“With not having the most talent on the field,” Blake Dean said, “we’ve got to be the tougher team. “There’s no doubt in my mind, 100 percent, that is why we are where we are.”
Blake Dean gathered the bunch Sunday, just after their series win, prodding for more.
“I don’t ask for much,” he told them, “but I do ask that you guys give me a little bit extra, and give me all you got against the Tigers and see how we shake out.”