Raph Rhymes flirted with a .500 batting average much of the season, but watching him bash Southeastern Conference pitching every weekend wasn’t the most impressive or surprising thing LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri ever saw his star outfielder do.
Mainieri remembers meeting with Rhymes last June to discuss the Monroe native’s future in the program.
Rhymes had led LSU with 77 hits and batted .360 as a sophomore. He had been selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 40th round of the MLB draft.
“Would it be OK for me to voluntarily give up my scholarship?” Mainieri said Rhymes asked him. “Would it help our team? Would you be able to go out and (use Rhymes’ scholarship money to) get another player that could make us stronger?”
So when he was selected Tuesday as the Southeastern Conference player of the year in a vote of the league’s 12 coaches, Rhymes may have been the first player to receive the honor without making a dent in his team’s scholarship budget.
Rhymes leads the nation with a .459 batting average as a virtual walk-on.
As the SEC player of the year, he joins Todd Walker (1993), Russ Johnson (1994), Eddy Furniss (1996), Aaron Hill (2003) and Jon Zeringue (2004) as LSU players to win the award; all five previous winners led LSU to the College World Series the year they were honored.
Among the other SEC stars to receive individual hardware Tuesday were Mississippi State junior Chris Stratton, who was named the league’s pitcher of the year; Kentucky outfielder Austin Cousino, who was named the SEC freshman of the year; and South Carolina pitcher Michael Roth, who earned the conference’s scholar-athlete of the year award.
Kentucky’s Gary Henderson was named the SEC coach of the year after leading the Wildcats within one game of the conference title.
Rhymes was joined on the All-SEC first team by pitcher Kevin Gausman, while junior outfielder Mason Katz was selected to the second team. Pitcher Aaron Nola was named to the SEC All-Freshman team and sophomore pitcher Ryan Eades to the All-Defensive team.
Rhymes continues one of the best offensive seasons in school history when he leads LSU into regional action Friday night against his hometown school Louisiana-Monroe.
Although the Tigers last had the SEC’s player of the year eight years ago, Louis Coleman was named the SEC pitcher of the year as a senior in 2009.
Mainieri said Rhymes, the anchor of an offense with a .295 team average, was a no-brainer for the league’s top individual award.
“If he didn’t get the SEC player of the year award, there should have been an investigation,” Mainieri said.
Rhymes has struck out only 12 times in 209 at-bats and heads into the weekend with an on-base percentage of .513. He was batting .500 as late as May 11. Rhymes and Gausman are among 30 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award given to the nation’s best player.
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