The excitement surrounding the return of LSU baseball is palpable, and certainly well deserved.
Ten months after the 2020 season was squashed by the 16-ton weight of the coronavirus pandemic, practice began Friday under brilliant blue skies that required sunglasses and spurred optimism to grow like fresh spring grass. The regular season is set to begin three weeks hence on Feb. 19.
Yes, there will be a cap of 2,500 fans in the stands at Alex Box Stadium (college baseball is used to living with numerical limitations, like the draconian 11.7 scholarship ceiling). That means there will be precious little of the “Baseball at The Box” atmosphere we’re all accustomed to savoring.
But this season, at least to start, just playing the games equals success.
Well, not exactly. This is LSU, of course, where football-like winning percentages are expected in baseball and annual trips to the College World Series are considered the floor, not the ceiling. Especially with the talent on this year’s team.
Junior pitcher Jaden Hill reset and waited for a sign from his catcher, and in the batter’s box across from him, freshman infielder Will Saffo…
With the NCAA allowing players to return for an extra year of eligibility in 2021, the roster is stacked with talent and experience. One of many stacked rosters across the college game.
“When you look around the country it’s a real unique year to say the least,” said Kendall Rogers, co-managing editor for D1Baseball.com. “You look at, say, TCU. They’re returning six or seven graduated seniors. This is their fifth year there. There are a lot of teams like that.”
There are also lots of schools with recruiting classes on steroids, classes stocked with players who likely would have passed on their college offers for the major leagues if it had been a normal year. LSU fans are salivating over the bat exit velocity of freshman outfielder Dylan Crews (he’s gone over 110 mph, per LSU’s in-house preseason stats), a bat the Tigers will be depending on along with freshman first baseman Trey Morgan. But that makes LSU more the exception than the norm.
“There are not a lot of freshman who will have a chance to have a huge impact elsewhere” because of all the returning veterans, Rogers said.
In case you missed anything since the last LSU baseball game, here’s everything you need to know before the Tigers begin preseason practice Friday.
It’s the kind of year where an LSU could have a very good team but still finds itself picked down the list, especially in the hyper-competitive Southeastern Conference. D1Baseball.com has the Tigers ranked a respectable 12th in its preseason poll, but behind five SEC teams: No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas at Nos. 6-8. And the roulette wheel of seemingly inevitable coronavirus-related player quarantines only adds to the degree of difficulty in 2021.
“This might be the strongest talent-wise (college baseball) has been in a few decades,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Friday during his team’s media day interviews.
“The SEC is going to be as tough as ever if not tougher. There are a lot of schools like us with players returning because of the shortened draft. I wouldn’t be surprised if one-third of the first round is SEC pitchers and position players.”
For all the tough outs across the SEC, Rogers said the Tigers could easily be ranked higher.
“The bar for this team is Omaha,” Rogers said. “The only reason LSU is 12th for us is they do have to prove something offensively. Crews and Morgan have to produce. If they don’t hit .280-.300, I don’t know where that production is going to come from.
“But this is their best pitching staff I’ve seen in years. And it’s a very good bullpen.”
The staff features a pair of preseason All-Americans in junior Jaden Hill and senior Devin Fontenot, the latter one of those players who would almost certainly have turned pro in a normal season.
Their presence is among the reasons expectations are typical for the Tigers despite all the heated competition.
“There’s no excuses at LSU,” Mainieri said. “We keep the standards high, compete every day, and I think we have as good a chance to be as competitive as anybody.”
Mainieri was asked during the news conference if there were any silver linings from 2020.
“No,” he quickly shot back, then amended his thoughts.
“One silver lining is our players will never take anything for granted again,” Mainieri said. “Having something taken away from you increases the love for that thing.”
And that drive to get back to Omaha, where LSU last played in 2017 when it lost to Florida in the CWS championship series, adds weight to those emotions.
“We haven’t won the College World Series in 12 years,” said relief pitcher Matthew Beck, back as a graduate student in 2021 and the last player link to that team. “It has to be about 2017 every single day. Watching Florida dogpile and lift the trophy I thought was outs, I think about that every day.”
Veterans, talented newcomers and a chip on their collective shoulders. If LSU makes it back to the CWS and wins that elusive seventh title, maybe that will be the special mix that gets the Tigers there.