The first day of LSU baseball practice Friday was one of optimism on a sunny, if cold, day. That followed a fall of dark clouds and worry for coach Paul Mainieri.
The Tigers had a rash of health issues that affected nine pitchers and two position players and led to Mainieri shutting down five more pitchers simply to play it safe.
“It was scary; I didn’t know the severity,” Mainieri said. “We had nine guys incapable of pitching.”
Mainieri said of the nine pitchers stricken, four are still recovering. Sophomore right-hander Nick Storz, who pitched three innings last year, had a torn shoulder muscle and underwent the same surgery that extended the career of Major League pitcher Jake Peavy. He’s expected to begin throwing next week.
“At first I thought he’d be out for the year, but Nick’s not hearing any of that,” Mainieri said. “The doctor said there was some hope by end of April he’ll be ready to pitch.”
Sophomore A.J. Labas and freshman Easton McMurray both are still beset by soreness each time they try to come back. Mainieri has high hopes for the injury to sophomore right-hander Ma’Khail Hillard, the team’s most consistent starter last season (9-5, 3.79 ERA).
Hilliard missed fall with a sore shoulder and made good progress through a two-month throwing program, but the soreness returned after a recent workout.
“We hope it’s just a muscle strain,” Mainieri said. “We’re going to shut him down for about a week, rehab it, give it therapy. They don’t think it’s anything too serious. We’re looking at a target date of next Friday.”
Saul Garza was set to be the starting catcher, but what was first thought to be a minor knee injury turned into a four-month recovery from surgery to suture his meniscus. Manieri said Garza, who hit 23 homers at Howard College last year, has been hitting the ball well for the past month and should be able to catch in by mid-March.
“He can’t get into catching stance until March, then about two weeks to catch in a game,” Mainieri said. “We’re precariously thin at catcher. Brock Mathis will have to do a lot of catching in the first 20 games, 10 games in first 14 days. I hope he stays healthy.”
Freshman C.J. Willis is listed as a catcher but is also in the running for the first base job. A torn labrum has him three or four weeks away from returning, Mainieri said.
LSU has two ongoing construction projects at Alex Box Stadium, a Legacy Plaza to the left of the existing plaza fronting the stadium, and a baseball-only weight room behind the right-field bleachers.
The Legacy Plaza will feature a statue of former Tiger coaching legend Skip Bertman with plaques honoring LSU teams that won national championships, SEC regular-season and tournament titles and those that appeared in the College World Series.
Mainieri said the plaza could be finished before the season is over.
“It’s long overdue, in my opinion, for the greatest coach in the history of college baseball,” Mainieri said. “We’re hoping it will be completed before the end of the season. If it is, we’re going to have a dedication.”
Mainieri said the new weight room will allow baseball players more convenience for their weight workouts. They currently share the football weight room and have to schedule around the football team. Inside the weight room will be a smaller locker room for former LSU players who live in Baton Rouge and use the facilities to prepare for spring training, he said.
Short on lefties
McMurray is the only left-handed pitcher on the roster, and while Mainiri said he’s not happy about it, it’s not that much of a concern.
“It wasn’t by design,” Mainieri said. “I give a lot of leeway to (pitching coach) Alan (Dunn) and (assistant coach) Nolan (Cain) with the directive, ‘Let’s get the best guys, not what hand they throw with.’ There are advantages to having left-handers. But I’d rather have a good right-hander than a mediocre left-hander.”
Mainieri enters the season as the active NCAA Division I coach with the third most victories behind Florida State’s Mike Martin and North Carolina’s Mike Fox. Mainieri’s record in 36 seasons at St. Thomas, Air Force, Notre Dame and LSU combined is 1,415-721-8.
Martin, the all-time leader with a 1,987-713-4 record, is set to retire after the 2019 season.