Tony Kemp recalls the 11-inning marathon, a 5-4 loss, with clarity. It handed LSU the 2013 SEC tournament championship in the tiny Vanderbilt infielder’s final collegiate season.
Kemp’s now a valued utility man in the Astros minor league system who has one Major League call up to his credit. Kemp, the SEC Player of the Year, finished 0-for-4 and drew two walks on that May afternoon where he was first acquainted with Alex Bregman, the SEC’s Freshman of the Year.
Cognizant of the postseason accolades both reaped, the two struck a conversation while Kemp stood on second base. As is his trademark, Bregman was blunt.
“Knows what he wants, has goals and he’s willing to put in the sacrifices to be the best,” Kemp said Thursday. “I just knew he was going to be a good athlete. Right when I saw him. His swing, how he handled himself, how his team rallied around him.
“I was like ‘He’s going to be a good player.’”
Kemp was drafted weeks later, a fifth round selection of the Astros. Bregman toiled for two more seasons in Louisiana — the Albuquerque boy’s second home where he returned Thursday for the first time as a professional.
“I feel like I was just a little kid when I got (to LSU),” Bregman said Thursday, fulfilling the first of a flood of interview requests at Zephyr Field. “I thought I was really good out of high school. Then I got a reality check when I got here in the fall. It changed my career forever.”
Bregman does not lack for self-assurance, the product of confidence in his other-worldly work ethic. Reporters peppered him with questions in near incredulity. Can you even believe how fast you’re rising, they asked. Did you ever expect this?
How is it so easy for you?
“It’s not,” Bregman says, holding back laughter. “We play against very good teams all the time, very good pitching. The biggest thing this year is being confident and the preparation I put in the offseason. I put in the hard work and it’s paying off.”
Stories still reverberate through the LSU program of the exploits. Coach Paul Mainieri regularly tells of drives down Gourier Ave., when he noticed the lights in his stadium on and his shortstop fielding ground balls. He had the keys to the facility, able to go whenever he pleased.
“He knows what kind of player he is and tries to work the best around that, to where he knows what he needs to be doing, knows his role,” Preston Tucker said. “He’s a good all-around player and it’s hard to find a real weakness … When the opportunity comes to where he’s up in the big leagues, then he’s going to work on becoming a better player up there. Right now he’s trying to continue to do what he’s doing and improve as a Triple-A baseball player.”
Tucker was one of five Grizzlies in Friday night’s lineup who’ve played in a Major League game this season. Another, reigning Pacific Coast League MVP Matt Duffy, had a night off.
Duffy functions as the welcomer inside this clubhouse. He’s 27 and a six-year veteran who achieved the elusive Major League call up just last season. He knows far too well the nervousness of attempting to mesh with a new team.
“I don’t think he needs my advice, for sure,” Duffy said. “ God, the kid’s what, 22? It’s crazy how fast he’s developed … Carlos (Correa), Bregman you can put them in the same sentence. He has a knack for hitting every single ball on the barrel, he makes every play in the field, he’s a great kid, too.”
Correa’s the reigning American League Rookie of the Year who played 24 games at Fresno before finally getting his call-up last season.
“He’s right there with Carlos now,” said Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco One of the top prospects, moving quick as impact players. Good things are going to happen for him.”
Bregman stands on the field prior to his ninth Grizzlies game. He curses the Southern humidity and wonders how it will affect his hitting and the meticulous plan to which he adheres. Still, he hacks in batting practice with minimal effort, spraying line drives into left field.
A group of fans rushes in, occupying the third base line in purple and gold. Bregman jogs, signing each piece of memorabilia shoved into his hand.
“Louisiana will always be my second home,” Bregman says. “I grew up here. I grew up for three years here.”