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LSU head coach Paul Mainieri on the field during practice on media day, Friday, January 24, 2020, at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Two weeks ago, the members of LSU’s baseball team joined a Zoom call with Shelly Mullenix, LSU’s associate athletic director for health and wellness. Mullenix gave an hourlong presentation about the athletic department’s safety protocols and how to protect oneself from the coronavirus.

At that time, on Aug. 2, the baseball team entered a two-week quarantine period, the first step for reaching fall practice. Players spent one week isolated at home, then they returned to campus in stages, convening again after their season ended so quickly this spring.

Six players had tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer, coach Paul Mainieri said Friday, but the 23 returning players' results came back negative in their first round of testing earlier this week. Freshmen and junior-college transfers will be tested for the virus Saturday.

Mainieri said the six players tested positive while living at home, adding “most of them” were either asymptomatic or experienced mild symptoms. Mainieri also said a couple staff members tested positive this summer. He believes LSU can keep its players safer on campus, giving the team a chance at completing fall practice.

After another week of quarantine, LSU will begin a monthlong training period before practice starts Sept. 20. College athletics have entered a period of turbulent upheaval as conferences across the country postponed fall sports because of health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, but LSU’s baseball program has continued preparing for the 2021 season. It intends to practice as long as it can.

“We plan on playing baseball in the spring,” Mainieri said, “and that begins with having fall practice.”

The coronavirus and ongoing pandemic have forced LSU to change the way it operates this fall. Coaches will wear face coverings during practice. The team plans to use both dugouts for intrasquad scrimmages. Pitchers must wait in the stands. Athletic trainers will monitor vital signs, including heartbeats.

The team implemented a COVID-19 policy manual that resembles MLB protocols, Mainieri said. It prohibits high-fives and spitting.

LSU also changed the format of its locker room inside Alex Box Stadium. Pitchers used to sit on one side of the room with position players on the other. This year, LSU alternated the players every other locker so pitchers can leave the stadium early. Then, once scrimmages end, the remaining players will have more space between them.

“We're doing everything we can possibly think of to control the health of the players while they're under our control,” Mainieri said. “Then, of course, we plead with the players and try to guide them and educate them on what to do when they're away from the baseball field to give themselves the best chance to remain healthy and not to either catch it or spread it.” 

Once fall practice begins, LSU will focus on player development, using more intrasquad scrimmages than years past as it tries to make up for lost time. The 2020 season ended after 17 games because of the pandemic. LSU lost months of potential improvement, though some players later participated in collegiate summer leagues.

Instead of batting practice sessions mixed with brief scrimmages and shortened outings, LSU will replicate more game-like scenarios. Mainieri plans to scrimmage between six and nine innings at a time. Starting pitchers will throw longer during the practice games.

All these plans depend on the team staying healthy. The coronavirus could cancel every scrimmage and force LSU to shut down once again.

Mainieri tries to remain optimistic. He wants the baseball program to operate like it will play a 56-game regular season next spring and adjust if necessary. He hopes doctors can develop a reliable vaccine and that people will use it. He has to hold onto something. 

Mainieri doesn’t know what will happen next spring, if Alex Box Stadium will host 10,000 fans or if LSU will play a typical schedule. So much can change within 6 months. He hopes for better conditions.

For now, Mainieri feels the excitement of a new season. Baseball has always determined his schedule. He went through his first spring without the sport earlier this year. After months apart, his team has returned.

“Let's see how fall practice goes,” Mainieri said. “If we can get through fall practice without having big setbacks because of the disease, I'll feel a lot more confident that we can at least play baseball in the spring."

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com