BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri faces a pair of major challenges if he is to get the Tigers back to the College World Series in 2018.
The first challenge is tangible. Mainieri has to replace the entire weekend pitching rotation that led the Tigers to Omaha last season.
“The guy that coined the phrase, ‘Pitching is 90 percent of the game,’ he underestimated by a wide margin,” Mainieri said.
The second challenge is both tangible and intangible.
LSU also has to find a way to make up for the loss of the dynamic middle-infield tandem of shortstop Kramer Robertson and second baseman Cole Freeman. The seniors weren’t just an excellent double-play tandem, but effectively the heart and soul of the team.
“ Cole Freeman brought a factor to our team with his speed,” Mainieri said. “Who will ever forget his mad dash on that post-rally beach ball play, when the guy over ran the ball, threw it in, it got away, and Freeman dashed for home?”
Mainieri was referring to Freeman’s game-tying run in the eighth inning of LSU’s 5-4 opening-round CWS win against Florida State. He scored from first on an Antoine Duplantis single and a pair of Seminole errors shortly after the game was delayed by a beach ball that dropped from the outfield bleachers.
“It takes a unique guy with speed to be able to do a play like that,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know if anyone is going to have that.”
With Robertson, it’s about replacing more than on-field production. When LSU stumbled to a 10-8 start in SEC play last season, Robertson put it all on himself.
“I understand it’s a team sport, but when you see your senior leader, when he sucks, it rubs off on the whole team,” he said before the Tigers departed for Alabama, where they would sweep the Crimson Tide.
LSU finished the SEC schedule on an 11-1 hot streak, winning the Western Division title before going on to win the SEC Tournament.
“Kramer is one of those guys that had the ‘It’ factor,” Mainieri said.
Meet LSU’s new middle infielders
Luckily, LSU has custom-made replacements for both players ready.
Josh Smith, a breakout star at third base as a freshman last season, is moving to shortstop. It is not a foreign position.
“I’ve been playing shortstop my whole life,” Smith said. “Taking one year off was sort of weird.”
Smith was arguably LSU’s finest defensive player last season, and he also has the best on-base percentage of any returning Tiger. As a Baton Rouge native, he’s also well aware of LSU’s proud lineage at short.
“I model my game after [Austin] Nola, [Alex] Bregman, Kramer, all of those guys who have come through here,” Smith said. “It’s awesome to play the same position as those guys and hopefully have the same great career that they did.”
Second baseman Brandt Broussard has made a habit out of following Freeman. Like Freeman, he played at Delgado Community College in New Orleans for two years before transferring to LSU.
“A lot of people say I’m similar to Cole in a lot of ways,” Broussard said. “He’s probably a little bit faster than me. But they’re looking for someone who can handle the bat. Play good defense. Get the job done wherever they need you to do it.”
Freshman Hal Hughes will likely platoon with Broussard early in the season with the best man eventually becoming the primary starter. At the very least, Hughes qualifies as a potential late-inning defensive replacement.
“I’m telling you, Hal is one of the best fielders I’ve ever played with,” Smith said. “He has smooth hands. Confidence. He doesn’t really play like a freshman — he always has a cool head.”
If Mainieri has any concern about his new-look middle infield, he certainly isn’t showing it.
“If our pitching pitches the way that they can or like I hope they will,” he said, “then I think our double-play combination will be just fine.”
The post For LSU baseball, replacing middle infield major key to 2018 — and possible CWS return appeared first on SEC Country.
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