LSU baseball never has to worry about tempering expectations. They are high and waiting from the last day of one season to the last day of the next.
That’s the way it is at one of the nation’s elite programs, which owns six College World Series titles since 1991 and came tantalizingly close two years ago.
But at Friday’s media day marking the beginning of practice for the 2019 campaign and had the Tigers embracing those expectations a bit tighter than usual.
“I thought by now we’d have a couple more numbers on The Intimidator,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, starting his 13th season, of the billboard that boasts the Tigers' College World Series track record. “I’m proud of the 2009 national championship, but quite frankly I’m ready for another one.
“This year we have a chance to do something special. I feel that way every year, but especially this year.”
He’s not alone. In the five major preseason polls, LSU is no lower than No. 2, and it is No. 1 according to Collegiate Baseball, Perfect Game and USA Today. Baseball America and D1 Baseball rate them behind only conference rival Vanderbilt.
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Bring it on, said the players echoing their coach.
“It’s LSU; you come here to be preseason No. 1,” shortstop Josh Smith said. “It’s fun to get everybody’s best because it brings out your best. We’re ready to get after it.”
Said designated Friday night starting pitcher Zack Hess: “For me it’s just another year at LSU. It’s the same expectation every year, Omaha or bust. We have some special components that will give a shot to accomplish those goals.”
Friday was the first day of practice but the last day to talk about Omaha and championships under Mainieri’s orders. The only game they’re allowed to think about for the next three weeks is the season opener Feb. 15 at Alex Box Stadium against Louisiana-Monroe.
The schedule provides the Tigers with plenty to concentrate on, including a three-game series at national powerhouse Texas and a home set against California. On top of that, the SEC is loaded again with as many as four other top 10 teams — and depending on the ranking, it’s not always the same four.
What is fueling the positive vibes is the confluence of what Mainieri called his “three recruiting classes.”
First is the traditional incoming first-year players, the consensus No. 1 class in the nation. Second are two front-line players, Smith and pitcher Eric Walker, who missed all or most of the 2018 season because of health issues; and third is the trio of starters the Tigers didn’t lose to the Major League Baseball draft, Hess and outfielders Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson.
Mainieri is particularly keen on the latter, which parallel the “Fab Four” of Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman, Greg Deichmann and Jared Poché in 2017. They skipped the draft and helped the Tigers to the CWS championship series, where they lost in two games to Florida.
“Every day they are out there, you can feel the leadership, the calmness, the experience and how it rubs off on the young players,” Mainieri said of Hess, Duplantis and Watson.
Hess will fill the crucial Friday night starter role after moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation last year. He was better than his 7-6 record with a 5.05 ERA, but after a summer in the Cape Cod League and honing his skills with the USA national team, Mainieri said it won’t take long to notice the marked improvement.
“Let’s say it now, right out front, Zack Hess will be our Friday night starter for the entire season,” Mainieri said. “There’s no consideration for moving him to the bullpen. He’s our dude. I think he looks like a first-round draft pick.”
Hess said after last season he’s primed to handle the role of team ace.
“That responsibility should fall on me,” Hess said. “There’s a lot of talent in that freshman class. But I’ve been through the ringer. I’m excited to go back and lead this staff.
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Mainieri is just as confident in Walker, who last pitched for LSU in the 2017 College World Series before leaving a game with an elbow injury. After undergoing Tommy John surgery, has looked like the pitcher who went 8-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 17 starts in 2017.
“He’s back to normal,” Mainieri said. “I have a sense he will be the same guy he was for us two years ago.”
Walker, whom Mainieri said will start off in the Sunday starter role, has gotten major props from coaches and teammates from the way he attacked his rehab.
“When he came back and started throwing, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said.
The third starting job will come out of a talented freshman foursome of Landon Marceaux, Jaden Hill, Chase Costello and Cole Henry. Mainieri said Marceaux would get the nod if the season started now. But Hill and Costello are right behind. Henry missed all of fall practice with arm soreness but is throwing well again, Mainieri said.
LSU averted a budding disaster in the fall when injuries hit nine pitchers, causing Mainieri to shut down five others. Of the nine, four are still having issues, including the team's wins leader a year ago, Mikhail Hiliard (9-5, 3.79 ERA), of whom Mainieri is the most hopeful.
Todd Peterson, who had six saves last year, is a leading candidate for closer.
Mainieri said the batting order is nearly set, although the not all of the defensive positions are. Duplantis, the team’s leading hitter with a .328 average, will lead off in right field followed by Smith, junior-college transfer Saul Garza as the DH, left fielder Daniel Cabrera in the cleanup spot and Watson in center field. The No. 6 hole will come from a knot of four players competing for the first-base job. Catcher Brock Mathis will bat seventh, and the eighth and ninth spots will go to second baseman Brandt Broussard and third baseman Hal Hughes in some order.
Garza, who hit 23 home runs last year at Howard College, is coming back from knee surgery and likely won’t start catching until mid-March. That leaves Mathis to handle a bigger workload than Mainieri would like early in the season.
First base will be another battle of four freshmen: Drew Bianco, son of former LSU player and Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco; John Curtis graduate Cade Beloso; Gavin Dugas; and C.J. Willis, who sat out the fall with a torn labrum and is “three or four weeks away.”