Nolan Cain stood near the mound inside Alex Box Stadium with a stopwatch throughout fall practice. After pitches during bullpen sessions and simulated games, the LSU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator looked at the screen. He yelled out times.
1.32! 1.12! 1.58!
The Tigers wanted pitches to reach the catcher in 1.35 seconds or less. They had struggled last season with throwing out base runners, so when their pitchers threw from the stretch this fall, they emphasized quick deliveries.
Opponents last year went 92 for 106 on stolen base attempts against LSU, the highest successful percentage (86.79) in the Southeastern Conference. Throws to second or third base often arrived too late.
The previous LSU teams under coach Paul Mainieri had allowed a 69.77% average on stolen base attempts. Mainieri and the players believed the pitching staff, catchers and infielders needed to work together to fix the problem.
After his final class of summer school last year, Cade Beloso walked through the entrance of the weight room inside the LSU baseball facility.…
“We have to address that part of the game,” Mainieri said. “I thought that hurt us a lot last year. I'm determined that it won't hurt us as much this year.”
Blame did not rest on one position group because three players must act in harmony to prevent runners from stealing. As the opponent breaks for second base, the pitcher needs to quickly deliver the ball to the catcher, who has to rise from a squat and send an accurate throw to the bag — in two seconds or less. If the infielder drops the ball or misses the tag, none of it matters.
LSU focused on throwing out runners throughout the offseason. Catchers tried to improve their footwork and accuracy. Pitching coach Alan Dunn emphasized disrupting the timing of the runner. The pitchers varied their looks and tempo, and the catchers threw down to first base more often during scrimmages.
“We can make the best throw there is, but if our pitcher isn't holding on the runner and isn't quick enough to the plate, the runners can steal all day,” freshman catcher Alex Milazzo said. “But our pitchers have done a great job this fall with that.”
LSU must replace the majority of its starting lineup, but with three weeks until the season opener against Indiana, expectations within the baseball team remain high.
Milazzo signed with LSU last summer. The four-year starter from Zachary excited the coaching staff before he reached campus because of his defensive ability. Mainieri estimated he threw out eight runners during fall practice. He might be LSU’s best defensive catcher on the roster.
“Probably throws better than any catcher I've had here at LSU,” Mainieri said.
As the season begins, Milazzo will split time — Mainieri said about “50/50” — at catcher with returning starter Saul Garza. The Tigers also have junior Braden Doughty and freshman Hayden Travinski, who has practiced at first base, too. Last summer, catcher Brock Mathis transferred to Oklahoma State.
The Tigers want to protect Garza and give Milazzo experience. Garza missed fall practice after surgery to repair his left thumb, which hyperextended on Garza’s second day in the Cape Cod Baseball League. LSU tried to let the thumb heal on its own, but soreness had persisted for two months when he underwent surgery in September.
LSU freshman infielder Zach Arnold will not play until mid-March after he underwent surgery to remove a rib.
“I was catching one of our pitchers who plays for Hawaii,” Garza said, smiling. “He spiked a fastball and it clipped me a little bit. So, hopefully we can meet up with Hawaii at some point.”
Slowed by a torn meniscus, Garza finished last season as one of LSU’s most productive hitters, batting .303 with 27 RBIs and five home runs. The majority of his production came near the end of the schedule. He batted .415 (32 of 77) over his last 21 games.
Garza’s late surge raised his draft stock. The Kansas City Royals selected him in the 32nd round of the Major League Baseball draft, and the club offered him a bonus of more than $600,000 before the signing deadline. Garza turned it down. He had decided to return to school before the draft.
Garza’s thumb has healed, and LSU expects him to anchor the middle of its batting order. When Milazzo starts at catcher, Mainieri said Garza will likely play as the designated hitter.
With Garza, Milazzo and the emphasis LSU placed on throwing out runners, Mainieri said he believes the team has improved since last season. He may know after the first series.
LSU begins the year against Indiana, and Mainieri said Hoosiers coach Jeff Mercer likes to expose opponents on the base paths. Though Mercer inherited a roster filled with power hitters last season, his 2018 team at Wright State stole 110 bases.
“We'll be tested right away,” Mainieri said. “Hopefully we'll be up to the task.”