Everywhere Daniel Cabrera looked in the past year, he was surrounded by excellent company.
And each time he had to prove he belonged in the LSU outfield, he held his own, or better.
While LSU coach Paul Mainieri is putting a lot of faith in an improved Cabrera as his sophomore season begins, he wants his slugger to remember he doesn’t have to carry the lineup every night.
The last open position in the LSU baseball team’s starting lineup is actually first.
Mainieri has penciled the left-handed-hitting Cabrera into the cleanup spot once again after he led the team in RBIs as a freshman, batting fourth in the order in 21 of 63 games last year.
Cabrera has gotten the message and says he’s confident he will only build off of his freshman year, which started a bit slow but finished with a flourish (he had a .310 batting average, eight homers, 54 RBIs and a team-best .525 slugging percentage).
“Having a year under my belt helps a lot,” said Cabrera, who was a 26th-round choice by San Diego in the 2018 Major League draft. “I have a lot of confidence in myself and know we’ve got a lot of good hitters around me, so I don’t have to do too much. It’s pretty cool to have someone like that to work with.”
Cabrera started his freshman season with a .210 average through his first 12 games. He closed the regular season with a 12-game hitting streak and extended it to 15 games in the SEC tournament. He was third on the team with 15 multi-hit games and first with 14 games of at least two RBIs.
“It wasn’t the numbers I wanted to put up but I feel good because of how I started off slow and ended up on a pretty good note,” he said. “I was able to dig myself out of that hole and put up some pretty good numbers, figure out what kind of player I was and what kind of approach I needed.”
He finally began to relax with the likes of Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson in the lineup with him.
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Mainieri said Cabrera and pitcher Zack Hess are the two keys to the Tigers' fortunes this season, which begins with sky-high expectations at 7 p.m. Friday when No. 1 LSU hosts UL-Monroe at Alex Box Stadium.
“If Cabrera can go from being a .310 to .350 or .360 hitter with a ton of RBIs, if he hits 12-15 home runs, he becomes that real force in the lineup. Then the offense is going to be really good,” Mainieri said. They’ve got a very good surrounding cast, so they don’t have to feel like it’s up to them every time.
“I believe (Cabrera) is capable of being one of the greatest this school has produced. You hate to put too much pressure on a guy, but Daniel has a lot of ability.”
Mainieri saw Cabrera rise to the occasion with the USA Collegiate National Team when he coached the squad. Duplantis was injured after crashing into a wall and Cabrera replaced him, joining Hess and Watson.
Without hesitation, Mainieri inserted Cabrera in the cleanup spot between 2018 College World Series MVP Adley Rutschman of Oregon State and Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Vaughn of Cal.
Cabrera led Team USA with two home runs and six RBIs and batted .300.
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“Team USA experience was awesome,” Cabrera said. “It’s pretty cool knowing you’re playing with guys like Rutchman, Vaughn, Hess and Watson. It was cool being around them and picking their brains. I didn’t think it was too intimidating. I knew a lot of those guys. It was like catching up and playing with some buddies I hadn’t seen since high school.”
Mainieri said it has taken some time for Cabrera to get his swing back since practice began two weeks ago. He’s not only expecting more production at the plate but a better all-around player form fielding to base running.
“It just takes guys time to get their timing down, see the ball, pitch recognition,” Mainieri said. “You can’t be tentative and be a good hitter. Initially he was a little bit tentative. We’re expecting to be a middle-of-the-order hitter and an All-American-caliber player.
“He’s worked so hard on his outfield defense. He’s become a very good outfielder. Last year at the beginning, he was unsure of himself — but with rep after rep, he’s really improved.”
Hess said he’s confident Cabrera will up his game and possibly surpass Duplantis, who enters the season with a chance to become the Southeastern Conference all-time hits leader.
“Daniel did a tremendous job his freshman year and I fully expect him to build off the success he had last year,” Hess said. “He has a shot to go down as one of the greats at LSU. He’s going to be one of the critical parts for us. He’s a tough guy to pitch to. You have to mix speeds and hope for the best. He’s a very disciplined hitter with a very professional approach.”
Friday wasn’t the first time LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri ever had to walk back some of his preseason optimism.
Cabrera said his approach is evolving, and he expects to make some minor tweaks and adjustments based on how pitchers approach him.
“Pitchers are going to pitch me differently,” he said. “I might want to sit on a certain location instead of a certain pitch, sit on an off-speed pitch depending on what we’ve got on the pitcher. I’ve worked on just being consistent, pulling balls with authority. I was always good hitting balls the other way.”