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LSU freshman Dylan Crews fields a ball at practice Jan. 29, 2021, at Alex Box Stadium.

Whenever LSU takes pregame batting practice, it splits players into groups, dividing starters and backups. The starters are often veterans with years of experience against collegiate pitching, but while LSU prepared for its first preseason scrimmage Friday afternoon, two freshmen led the way.

Outfielder Dylan Crews stepped into the batting cage first and swung. When he finished his round, first baseman Tre’ Morgan replaced him. They cycled through with a couple other players, the two freshmen clearly at the forefront of LSU’s first full-team workout.

If LSU accomplishes what it wants this year and reaches the College World Series, it will need production from its freshmen, particularly Crews and Morgan. The Tigers batted .253 during the abbreviated 2020 season, and only two returning players, juniors Cade Beloso and Giovanni DiGiacomo, finished with a batting average above .300.

“The thing that's going to give us a better offensive team is going to be these young freshmen,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “Don't be surprised if you see Morgan and Crews hitting in critical spots in the order right out of the gate. I'm not going to be afraid to throw them into the fire.”

Mainieri spent much of that 17-game season looking for LSU’s best lineup. He seemed to find one he liked near the end, and as the younger players found a rhythm, LSU scored 7.8 runs per game during a five-game winning streak. However, the coronavirus pandemic ended the season before the Tigers faced Southeastern Conference pitching.

LSU lost three starters: right fielder Daniel Cabrera, catcher/designated hitter Saul Garza and third baseman Zack Mathis. It might replace all of them with freshmen.

“You look at them out there, they don't really look like freshmen,” sophomore second baseman Cade Doughty said. “They're hitting doubles in the gap and celebrating with the team. It's pretty incredible what they're going to do for us.”

Mainieri likes many of the freshmen, including outfielder/pitcher Brody Drost, infielder Will Safford and infielder Jordan Thompson, but he raved about Crews and Morgan.

While the other freshmen continue trying to earn playing time three weeks from LSU’s opening game Feb. 19 against Air Force, Crews and Morgan appear to have secured starting roles. LSU had them conduct interviews during a virtual media day, making them the only freshmen to do so.

Crews arrived at LSU surrounded by hype, a potential first-round draft pick who withdrew his name from consideration. He believed he needed more time to develop before he re-entered the draft in 2023. One website, D1 Baseball, still named him preseason SEC freshman of the year.

Mainieri often uses former LSU players as points of reference when describing newcomers, and for Crews, he picked two of the best to ever play for the program: Alex Bregman and DJ LeMahieu. He compared Crews’ passion for baseball to Bregman and his opposite-field swing to LeMahieu.

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“There's been a lot of great players here, a lot of very talented players,” Crews said. “I hope to be one of those guys one day.” 

The velocity on Crews’ hits consistently top 100 mph, and he recently reached 111.1 mph, a sign of his remarkable bat speed and power. A few days ago, Crews hit a home run off senior right-hander AJ Labas, a member of the weekend rotation. The ball landed halfway up the stands in right field.

“You don't see right-handed hitters hit them like that very frequently,” Mainieri said.

Morgan didn’t arrive with as much fanfare. He partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow his senior year at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, an injury that dampened his draft prospects and limited his throwing during fall practice. But Morgan still played such good defense that LSU moved Beloso, a two-year starter at first base, to the outfield.

Mainieri and the rest of LSU’s players described Morgan as a defensive wizard, impressed by his ability to pick errant throws from the dirt and field the position. Mainieri called him one the top-5 defensive first basemen he has ever coached.

“Gosh, do I love this kid,” Mainieri said. “I had no idea he was this good when we recruited him.” And after saying more about Morgan’s defensive ability, Mainieri added, “Oh by the way, he's probably going to hit second or third in our order. That will tell you what tremendous potential I think he has as a hitter.”

Before LSU scrimmaged Friday, Crews and Morgan threw together in the outfield. LSU put Crews at third base for the day, so he pretended to field ground balls and throw across the diamond.

While everyone else relaxed in the dugout, Crews and Morgan tossed the ball for a few minutes, these two freshmen so vital to LSU’s success practicing for their fast-approaching debuts.

Both players will bat highly in the lineup, making their ability to adjust to college pitchers something that will determine LSU’s season. Mainieri warned they might experience rough patches and moments of failure — they’re still freshmen, after all — but he expects two successful careers.

“It's an honor that he thinks of us so highly,” Morgan said, “but we know that when he puts us in these spots, we have to go in there and do damage. We can't go up there and act like freshmen. We have to go up there and play to his expectations.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com