CHICAGO — It has been eight years since DJ LeMahieu put on an LSU baseball uniform, and to this day, he refuses to admit Paul Mainieri was right.
Every fall, the Colorado Rockies second baseman tries to visit Baton Rouge for a football game, and whenever he does, he makes sure to stop by to see his old coach.
The former Tiger is one of Mainieri’s favorite players and one of the most successful pros to emerge from Alex Box Stadium in the past decade.
It’s always a good time when the two catch up — except for the inevitable question LeMahieu knows is coming.
“Are you still mad at me?” Mainieri will ask.
Almost 1,000 miles away from LSU, on a road trip to Wrigley Field, LeMahieu can’t help but roll his eyes.
About halfway through the 2009 season, Mainieri moved LeMahieu from shortstop, where he had played his entire career to that point, over to second base.
LeMahieu was an adequate shortstop, but the Tigers hadn’t turned one 6-4-3 double play in 40 games. Mainieri wanted to give freshman Austin Nola, whom he considered a better defensive player, a chance to start.
LeMahieu was shocked.
Two years earlier, the Detroit Tigers drafted the Michigan native as a high school shortstop in the 41st round. He started almost every game at shortstop for LSU during the 2008 season, when the Tigers reached the College World Series for the first time under Mainieri.
Even the way he started at LSU, taking shortstop from Michael Hollander, who moved to third base, suggested LeMahieu was meant to play there.
That’s where he wanted to stay.
But LeMahieu’s future was at second base, Mainieri said.
Eight years, one Gold Glove and an All-Star Game appearance later, LeMahieu’s accomplishments speak for themselves.
Maybe the old coach was right.
“I wasn’t really upset,” LeMahieu said. “I was surprised. It caught me off guard. I had always been a shortstop. Nola played shortstop, and he’s a very good shortstop, so I understood it, but it caught me off guard.”
LeMahieu still believes he could have made it to the majors as a shortstop, but he can’t deny the success he has had on the right side of the infield.
From the first day of practice, it was obvious his natural spot was at second base, Mainieri said. After LSU beat Southeastern Louisiana on April 21, 2009, Mainieri knew that’s where he would stay.
From there, LSU won 28 of its final 33 games on the way to the school’s only national championship since the days of Skip Bertman.
LeMahieu was named to the College World Series all-tournament team as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, batting .444 in six games with one double, one triple, one home run, four RBIs and nine runs.
LeMahieu couldn’t say whether the streak was a direct result of the switch — Ryan Schimpf also moved to a split role between first base and the outfield — but they probably weren’t a coincidence.
“DJ wasn’t particularly happy when I made that move,” Mainieri said. “But it wasn’t a reflection of him. I played him 100 games at shortstop, so I had confidence in him there. But once I moved him to second base, it took me 15 minutes to realize that we had a major league second baseman. I don’t know if DJ would’ve played in the major leagues at shortstop. But after watching him at second, I knew he could play second in the major leagues.”
Mainieri was right. Just a few months after the switch, the Chicago Cubs took LeMahieu in the second round of the MLB draft. Now in his seventh season in the majors and sixth with the Rockies, LeMahieu is one of the game’s top hitters.
His career .297 average hit a peak last season when he claimed the National League batting title, hitting .348. He had 192 hits, 104 runs, 66 RBIs and 11 homers — all career highs.
His numbers have dipped this season, but through Friday he was hitting .275 with 27 RBIs. Better yet, the Rockies — who finished 12 games under .500 last season — are on fire now. At 41-23 after Saturday’s win at Wrigley, the Rockies own the second-best record in baseball behind the Houston Astros.
In other words, life is good for LeMahieu, who rarely shied away from a chance to face the best in the business.
“The thing that stood out to me about DJ — he really embraced playing against the best pitchers and the best teams,” Mainieri said. “I think he thoroughly enjoyed that. You could feel that he knew someday he was going to play in the major leagues, and the best pitchers in the SEC and best pitchers we faced in the NCAA tournament — those were the kind of pitchers he was going to be facing while he tried to make a living in the major leagues. He embraced that challenge.”
As for his ability in the field, in seven seasons, LeMahieu committed only 25 errors in 673 games at second base. He won a Gold Glove in 2014 and was an All-Star in 2015.
He’s now more comfortable playing second.
“Playing at LSU is about as close to the big leagues as you can get, even in the minors,” LeMahieu said. “Just because of the expectations, the atmosphere, the focus on winning — you really don’t get that anywhere else except LSU and maybe a program here or there.
“The other thing too, is that you have so many good players there at LSU. You’ve got to play well to get in the lineup. That’s how it is in the big leagues. If you don’t produce, you’re not going to be in the lineup, and there’s not too many programs in college baseball that’s that competitive.”