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College | Story | 1/10/2019

Experienced Tigers open on top

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Daniel Cabrera, Antoine Duplantis (Louisiana State)

Preseason Top 25 | Preseason All-Americans

The American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) holds it annual convention every January and it’s always a popular destination. The ABCA took its party to Dallas last weekend, where thousands of coaches mixed and mingled, conversed and connected and generally shared their hopes and visions for a successful 2019 season.

Louisiana State head coach Paul Mainieri is an ABCA Convention rock star. A member of the ABCA Hall of Fame, he's been attending the event for close to 40 years now, first tagging along with his father when he was in high school and the last 37 as a college coach. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“It’s something that just kind of just signals it’s the start of the baseball season,” Mainieri told Perfect Game while speaking over the phone from a quiet corner on the convention floor late last week. “Especially when I was coaching in a cold weather climate, it was always nice to come to the convention … because it just got you into the baseball mood.”

Not that Mainieri needs any kind of excuse to get into the baseball mood. The 61-year old is set to begin his 37th year as a college head coach, and his 13th in Baton Rouge. The telephone conversation was taking place because Mainieri had just learned that his LSU Tigers would be occupying the No. 1 position in the Perfect Game College 2019 Preseason National Top 25 Rankings.

“We’re very honored that (PG) thinks that much of us,” Mainieri said. “Hopefully we can prove you right by the way we play during the season.”

Based on the firepower returning to the bayou – along with the arrival of at least a half-dozen highly regarded newcomers – expectations are through the roof for the 2019 Tigers. PG is not alone among media outlets in tabbing LSU as the nation’s preseason No. 1.

The Tigers are coming off a 2018 season that was a bit of roller coaster at times, and in Mainieri’s words was not one that lived-up to LSU’s high standards. Stated simply, the expectation shared by everyone with a connection to the program is to get to Omaha and play for a College World Series national championship.

LSU finished 33-23 overall (15-15 Southeastern Conf.) during the regular season and went 4-2 at the SEC Tournament after losing to Ole Miss in the championship game. The Tigers then took their 37-25 record to an NCAA Regional for a sixth straight year, this one in Corvallis, Ore., home of the No. 2 national seed Oregon State Beavers.

They beat both San Diego State and Northwestern State at the Regional, but dropped two games to the host Beavers, ending the season at 39-27. It was the third straight year that LSU had its season ended by the eventual national champion after losing to Coastal Carolina in a Super Regional in 2016 and to Florida in the College World Series championship series in 2017.

“Most LSU followers would look at it and say, ‘Well, that was a sub-par year,’ and I would have to agree with them,” Mainieri said. “It wasn’t a disaster of a season, but there was a point in the year where it could have been a disaster. It was just one of those seasons where for a period of time everything that could go wrong, went wrong.”

Injuries bit the Tigers hard right at the start when 2017 PG Freshman All-American right-hander Eric Walker was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery; starting shortstop Josh Smith was also sidelined after playing in only a handful of games. Walker is back this spring for his sophomore season and Smith is back for his junior campaign.

In retrospect, Mainieri looks back on 2018 as being a transition year. A lot of the talent that  populated the CWS runner-up roster in 2017 had moved on, and the new guys were looking to find themselves and adjust to their roles. They righted the ship enough to make it to the championship game at the SEC Tournament and just couldn’t get past Oregon State in the Regional.

“They could have given up but they didn’t,” Mainieri said. “I told them that last year you took some hard knocks and you survived, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. Now all those experiences that you’ve had are going to make you tougher and more hard-nosed going into this season.”

The Tigers return six position players who were starters in either 2017 or ’18, and the value of that experience cannot be underestimated. Senior right-fielder Antoine Duplantis, junior center-fielder Zachary Watson (Zach) and sophomore left-fielder Daniel Cabrera make up what most observers feel is the premier outfield in all of college baseball. All three played on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer.

Duplantis, a left-handed hitter from Lafayette, La., slashed .328/.381/.443 with 21 extra-base hits (13 2Bs), 48 RBI, 55 runs and 19 stolen bases last season. He has 268 hits in his career, just 84 shy of matching the LSU/SEC record of 352 set by the Tigers’ Eddie Furniss from 1995-98.

A 19th-round pick of the Indians in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft, Duplantis had 89, 90 and 89 hits in his first three seasons in Baton Rouge. Those totals seem to indicate that attaining the career hits record is very much within his reach.

Watson, a right-handed hitter from Ruston, La., who was at the 2015 PG National Showcase, hit .308 with seven home runs, 34 RBI and 14 stolen bases; Cabrera, a left-handed swinger from Baton Rouge who was at 2016 PG National, hit .315 with team-highs of eight home runs and 54 RBI. Watson was a 40th-round pick of the Red Sox in ’18 and Cabrera was a 26th-round pick of the Padres right out of high school in 2017.

The infield is bolstered by the return of Smith, the shortstop out of Greenwell Springs, La., who played in 72 games as a freshman in 2017 and produced a slash-line of .281/.407/.409 with 21 extra-base hits (16 2Bs, 5 HRs) and 48 RBI. Smith was also at the 2015 PG National Showcase.

Josh Smith might have made the USA Team had he not gotten hurt,” Mainieri said. “He’s an outstanding ball player and a potential first-round draft choice this June. He looked great this fall; he’s very healthy, he played well. … I think he’s going to be a leader of our team.”

Senior second baseman Brandt Broussard from Baton Rouge and sophomore third baseman Hal Hughes from Norman, Okla., are back after starting 51 and 63 games, respectively, last season.

“I feel like there’s a good core there of returning guys position player-wise,” Mainieri said. “And then when you look at our pitching staff, to get your Friday night starter back when you thought you were going to lose him to the draft, that’s obviously a big boost.”

That would be Zachary Hess (Zack), a 6-foot-6, 218-pound right-hander from Forest, Va., who performed at both the 2015 PG National Showcase and the 2015 PG All-American Classic. He finished 7-6 with a 5.05 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings of work in 2018, was a 34th-round pick of the Braves in the draft and also played on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. Hess was the Tigers’ closer in 2017, helping them to the CWS championship series against Florida.

“He’s had a lot of experience in just about anything you can see at the amateur level,” Mainieri said of Hess. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he’s as prepared as he can possibly be to have a great season.”

The righty Walker is expected to be back in form after missing last season – he was 8-2 with a 3.48 ERA during his 2017 freshman season – and sophomore right-hander Ma’Khail Hillard, a 2018 PG Freshman All-American who made 17 appearances (12 starts) and finished 9-5 with a 3.79 ERA, also returns.

The bullpen is anchored by the return of four right-handers who combined to make 94 appearances (18 starts) last season: senior Caleb Gilbert, juniors Matthew Beck and Todd Peterson (team-high six saves in ’18) and sophomore Devin Fontenot. Peterson and Fontenot are alumni of the ’15 and ’16 PG National, respectively.

“There are a lot of pieces there of returning players that really give us a chance,” Mainieri said.

There certainly is a wealth of talent in the Tigers’ clubhouse this season that has already spent at least two years on campus. There is also an influx of fresh talent provided by a 2018 recruiting class that PG ranked as No. 2 in the nation behind only Vanderbilt.

It’s a group that features five high school class of 2018 top prospects that were drafted in June but didn’t sign and headed for Baton Rouge. They are outfielder Giovanni DiGiacomo (29th Rnd., Pirates); right-hander Landon Marceaux (37th Rnd., Yankees); left-hander Easton McMurray (37th Rnd., Rockies); right-hander Cole Henry (38th Rnd., Rockies) and right-hander Jaden Hill (38th Rnd., Cardinals).

Additionally, sophomore catcher Saul Garza, a juco transfer, was a 31st-round selection of the Cardinals in 2017. Mainieri expects most of the newcomers to contribute immediately.

“Some of them are going to have to,” he said. “In college baseball nowadays, everybody is going to have freshman contributing, and you’re lucky if you can hold onto players for three years because of the draft. When you’re a place like LSU and many of the SEC schools where you’re going to have such high-caliber players, you know you’re going to lose players to the draft.”

In each one of the previous 12 years Mainieri has worked in Baton Rouge – his record at LSU is 551-229-3 (.706) with a national championship in 2009 and a runner-up finish in 2017 – he has come into each new season with an air of confidence surrounding his team, and that is certainly the case again in 2019.

In fact, Mainieri told PG that this team looks to be a “special group” and that some of the trials and tribulations the guys who were here faced last season has helped develop their cohesiveness and overall positive attitude. They weren’t quite good enough to get back to Omaha for a second straight year but their experiences in 2018 should only make them stronger this season.

“My biggest concern as a coach is just making sure that they have the confidence and believe in themselves as a team that they can handle any challenges that come our way,” Mainieri said.

LSU opens its 2019 with three games at Alex Box Stadium Feb. 15-17. Dubbed “Military Appreciation Weekend,” the Tigers will play single games with Louisiana Monroe, Army and Air Force. The non-conference slate includes a weekend series with the Big 12’s Texas in Austin and a weekend series with the Pac 12’s California in Baton Rouge. And then, on March 15, the Kentucky Wildcats come to town for a three-game set to kick-off the 30-game SEC portion of the schedule.

“If you sit down (in early January) and you stare at that schedule and you’re a player or a coach at LSU, it’s pretty intimidating to see how many great teams we have on that schedule,” Mainieri said. “But that’s the way we want it. This is my 13th year at LSU, and I tell players when we recruit them and I remind myself of it all the time, if you don’t like challenges … then LSU is not the place for you.”

There will be challenges in 2019, just there are every year. But as prognosticators begin to do what they do best – prognosticate – there is a general consensus that the 2019 Bayou Bengals will rise and stare-down each and every one. And, they embrace the high expectations.

“A lot of people, they don’t want to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason,” Mainieri said. “For me, I think it’s a real positive thing for our players because it’s just another way to continue to build our confidence and make them understand that being a player at LSU means that you’re shooting to be the very best.”

The 2019 college baseball preseason officially got underway last weekend at the ABCA convention in Dallas. Now, Mainieri is ready to lead his Tigers into the real deal with “Omaha or Bust!” as their rallying cry.

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