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LSU catcher Hayden Travinski (25) high-fives LSU right-handed pitcher Tom Biggs (38) during hitting practice on the field during practice on media day, Friday, January 24, 2020, at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

The day before his first preseason address on Friday afternoon, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri received a question about the football team. 

Mainieri had watched LSU’s undefeated, national championship season as he waited for the beginning of baseball practice. He admired the accomplishments of the football players, and with his own season about to begin, Mainieri was asked if he can repeat coach Ed Orgeron’s success. 

“Absolutely,” Mainieri said, chuckling, “I promise you we're going to win 15 games or more this year.” 

Mainieri spoke in a light-hearted and confident tone during his hour-long breakdown of the upcoming season on Friday afternoon. LSU must replace the majority of its starting lineup, but with three weeks until the season opener against Indiana, expectations within the baseball team remained as high as its football counterparts. 

Though ranked No. 11 and behind five Southeastern Conference teams in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll, LSU believes in can reach the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, this summer. It always does. 

“Omaha or bust is our motto here,” sophomore first baseman Cade Beloso said.

For LSU to reach the College World Series for the first time since 2017, it will rely on its pitching staff. Thirteen pitchers return from last year’s team, including the core of the weekend rotation. The Tigers only added three pitchers, all left-handers, to the roster. 

The pitching staff, anchored by four projected starters — sophomores Cole Henry and Landon Marceaux, redshirt sophomore AJ Labas and redshirt junior Eric Walker — may prove to be one of the best in the country. 

Mainieri believes Henry will pitch on Friday nights. Marceaux, Walker and Labas are competing for the second and third spots in the rotation. Right now, Mainieri said, Labas and Marceaux have an edge, possibly putting Walker in midweek games. 

“Those are our go-to guys, but I think our position players are going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Beloso said. “We're going to get the job done this year and make their jobs a lot easier.”

Last year during his preseason address, Mainieri recited the possible starting lineup for the first game. He later regretted the decision, thinking it decreased internal competition amongst the players. 

“I can't even come close to doing that with you right now,” Mainieri said this year. 

With so much turnover — five starters departed from last year’s team — LSU has competition for starting positions all over the field. Unlike some past seasons, veterans don’t have an edge on playing time because LSU doesn’t have many older players. 

“It hasn’t been often in the 14 years I have been here where there are so many unknowns about a team as we have this year with our position players,” Mainieri said.

Counting on the experience of its pitching staff, LSU prioritized position players in its latest signing class. It added 10 fielders, and during preseason practice, Mainieri must find new starters in left field, center field, second base, shortstop and third base. Players said the increased competition has prevented them from slacking.

As practice began, the Tigers looked at sophomore Drew Bianco and freshman Wes Toups in left field, freshman Maurice Hampton Jr. and sophomore Giovanni DiGiacomo in center field, sophomore Gavin Dugas and freshman Cade Doughty at second base and junior Hal Hughes and freshman Collier Cranford at shortstop. Junior college transfer Zack Mathis has emerged as the third baseman. He may bat third. 

“It feels like every day we come to practice, it's a game day,” said junior Daniel Cabrera, who will play right field and may bat leadoff. “We’re pushing each other.” 

Over the next three weeks, Mainieri hopes some of the players competing for time will assert themselves as starters. He saw flashes of talent from many of them during fall practice, but not enough to secure starting positions. Even after the season begins, the starting lineup will fluctuate. 

“While we're trying to figure out the right combination and putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” Mainieri said, “I do think our pitching staff is going to allow us to win games even while we're learning about our team.” 

And though LSU has so much to determine before its first game, the team understands expectations will never change. The billboard behind right field still listed LSU's six national championships as the team sat on bleachers for their group photo. The history of the program remained prominent in conversations.

But this season, for LSU to win its first national title since 2009, the Tigers have more decisions to make than years past.

“I like our team,” Mainieri said, “and I think we're going to be ready for this challenge.”

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Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com