The last open position in the LSU baseball team’s starting lineup is actually first.
A four-way freshman battle for the job at first base has been raging since fall practice, and with a week until the Feb. 15 season opener, Drew Bianco has moved into the lead, coach Paul Mainieri said.
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“We still have four more scrimmages,” Mainieri said. “He’s had a couple of big days, hit the ball real hard. I’m not anointing him as the starting first baseman. A lot can happen in the next seven or eight days. I’m getting more confident, at least. He’s starting to show a little more than the other guys.”
Bianco, the son of Ole Miss coach and former LSU catcher Mike Bianco, has moved ahead of Cade Beloso, C.J. Willis and Gavin Dugas. Of the four, only Beloso came to LSU as a first baseman.
“A lot of things go into it besides hitting,” Mainieri said. “Drew has shown a lot more pizazz.”
Bianco was a four-time all-state player at Oxford High School, where he helped his team to two state titles. He batted .352, hit 20 homers and drove in 100 runs in his career, and in practice, he's been hot of late despite battling injuries. Bianco had back-to-back multiple-hit scrimmages, including a three-run double Wednesday.
“I’m feeling really comfortable at the plate,” Bianco said. “Chink (hitting coach Sean Ochinko) is helping me with my approach. Hopefully I can keep that going.
“I’ve never played first. I was at second and short in high school, and third in the fall. It’s definitely a tough position. Coach Mainieri and Chink are key on good defense over there.”
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Willis came to LSU as a catcher from Ruston, and Dugas was an infielder, like Bianco, who had never played first. Mainieri said Dugas has been working more at second lately and that his future might be there after senior starter Brandt Broussard.
“Beloso and Willis are nose-and-nose,” Mainieri said. “They have good days, bad days, good at-bats, bad, good plays, bad plays. They both look like freshmen — inconsistent. Spectacular at times, and ‘What was he thinking?’ the next moment. Drew had had just a little more maturity for the college game, maybe because he’s been around the college game his whole life.”
Beloso brings good power as a left-handed hitter from John Curtis, where he was a part of two state champion teams. He batted .489 last season with 13 homers and 38 RBIs.
“We’re bringing everything we’ve got to the table every day,” Beloso said. “We’re competing hard and trying to be the best we can be, make each other the best we can be as well.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit (with swinging) but getting out of it. I hit a little dry spell the week of scrimmages. I’m starting to come back now. Trying to battle these good pitchers we have. They’re showing us how good they can be.”
Friday wasn’t the first time LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri ever had to walk back some of his preseason optimism.
Willis, picked by Tampa Bay in the 39th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft, batted .338 with 12 homers and 86 RBIs in his career at Ruston. An injury put him behind during the fall.
“I’ve been struggling a little lately with hitting, the ball isn’t finding the holes,” Willis said. “I’m facing the best pitching I’ve seen in my life.”
The biggest challenge for all three has been learning the position, which is unlike any of the other infield slots. All four put in a lot of time on “picking” low throws out of the dirt from infielders.
“If those guys throw a ball in the dirt, it’s our job to pick it,” Bianco said. “We think it’s our fault if we don’t. We feel like we should catch everything. We’ve got the biggest glove. We try to make every play."
Bianco said they take grounders for 20 minutes each practice and then work on picking throws off the Fungo machine, which shoots low balls to their left, right and in front.
“If you can catch it off the fungo, you can catch it when they throw it,” he said. “Getting the ball out of the glove is different, too.”
The LSU baseball team is a week into spring practice and the comings and goings continue, with a few more health issues thrown in.
Bianco said he hurt his hamstring three weeks ago, then re-injured it when spring practice began and missed three practices. While he was working through that, he was hit by a pitch on the elbow but played through that despite some swelling.
“I’m happy with my swing,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always done well. I came back slow after Christmas but I’m where I want to be.”