The 2018 baseball recruiting class arrived at LSU brimming with expectations, labeled as the No. 1 group in the country. The incoming players were surrounded by buzz words like "potential," and their presence, combined with the return of key veterans, made LSU a preseason favorite to win the national championship last season.
Instead, the year ended without titles. Some members of the class struggled adjusting to college athletics. Others missed chunks of the season with injuries, delaying their development.
One year later, that recruiting class forms the core of LSU’s team. The now-12-man group includes the three best pitchers on the staff, the starting first baseman and the starting catcher. It also has three players — Drew Bianco, Gavin Dugas and Giovanni DiGiacomo — who may start opening night against Indiana.
Bianco, Dugas and DiGiacomo showed flashes of their talent last spring, but they needed to improve to become reliable starters. When LSU begins the season on Friday inside Alex Box Stadium, Bianco might play left field with DiGiacomo nearby in center. Dugas could start at second base, right field or designated hitter, depending on the lineup selected by coach Paul Mainieri. He prefers experienced players for the season opener.
“They're going to be given every opportunity to prove they can be the guys that make a difference for our team,” Mainieri said. “And then they're going to have to get it done, or we'll try some other guys.”
Take a moment and do a Google search for “Zack Mathis LSU.”
Bianco felt motivated entering fall practice. He had started at first base opening day his freshman year, then he dropped to the bench as his production lagged. Bianco finished the season batting .176. He struck out on 34% of his plate appearances.
After watching him make diving catches in practice, Mainieri moved Bianco to left field.
“You need to go out there and show you belong here,” Mainieri told Bianco.
The position change helped Bianco focus on offense. Hitting coach Eddie Smith showed Bianco his front shoulder pulled away from the ball when he swung too hard. Smith convinced Bianco to accept singles and walks. His natural strength would create home runs.
Bianco hit five home runs through the first half of fall practice. Though his production waned, Bianco ended the fall session with the most home runs on the team. He felt like a different player, more confident and ready to contribute.
“Wish I would have finished a little better,” Bianco said, “but at the end of the day, I think I did what I needed to do.”
Hitting coach Eddie Smith showed LSU's players a slideshow presentation during their first team meeting. He set a foundation for his expectations, and the Tigers have accepted his requests.
Dugas spent most of his freshman year recovering from surgery after he tore a ligament in his thumb while sliding into second base. When Dugas returned two months later, LSU was deep into its Southeastern Conference schedule. He ended the season batting .186.
After playing infield last season, Mainieri moved Dugas to right field during fall practice. He wanted Dugas to relax and, similar to Bianco, focus on hitting. The position change helped Dugas calm his mind. He batted .333 with five doubles and two home runs during fall practice.
When LSU moved Dugas back to second base at the beginning of the preseason, he continued the same approach. He understood his abilities. He reminded himself he belonged at LSU.
“He wants to please so much that he gets a little anxious,” Mainieri said. “Now a year later, he's calmed down. His confidence is good. He's able to slow the game down a little bit.”
DiGiacomo played the majority of LSU’s games last season. He showcased his speed and batted .275, but DiGiacomo struck out 46 times, third-most on the team behind regular starters Daniel Cabrera and Zach Watson.
LSU freshman catcher Alex Milazzo lost his two front teeth when a fastball hit him his freshman year of high school. He returned to the field about two weeks later. He felt no reservations.
The fourth outfielder last season, DiGiacomo enters the year as LSU’s likely starter in center field. He might have the most speed on the team, but Mainieri wants to see him consistently reach base.
“He's got to improve his hitting,” Mainieri said.
Mainieri hopes all three players have made improvements, calling them “crucial” to LSU’s success. If they have not taken the next step in their development, Mainieri will have to give chances to freshmen. The Tigers don’t have much experience returning in the field as they replace the majority of their lineup.
Some of the players in that No. 1 recruiting class, LSU’s first since 2014, emerged as reliable starters and possible All-Americans. Others may have needed another year to adjust. Mainieri has seen players leap between their freshman and sophomore seasons. LSU will soon find out if this group did.
“We think we have a lot of talent, but we couldn't put it together for whatever reason it was our freshman year,” Bianco said. “This year, we came in with the mindset like we're the veterans now. It's our spot to lose.”