LSU’s fall baseball practice session was mostly an opportunity for players to demonstrate how much they had improved since the end of last season.
But for outfielder Chris Sciambra of Catholic High, it was an opportunity to see if he could get back to where he was last March before suffering a serious neck injury in a scary crash into the outfield wall at Auburn.
Sciambra suffered a non-displaced C1 fracture that immediately ended his freshman season. He didn’t need surgery, but he did have to wear a neck brace for four months to facilitate the vertebrae’s healing.
When Sciambra returned to school in mid-August, he received medical clearance to practice fully, and during the six-week fall session he passed the baseball tests with flying colors as well.
“It warms your heart to see a kid who had to go through what he went through, which could have been very, very tragic, and how difficult that must have been,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said, “and then see him go out without hesitation, without reservations, go out extremely hard, full out and play very, very well.
“He certainly played at least at the level he played at before he was hurt and he might have played even better. It’s just great to see a young man who’s wonderful in every way, a poster child for this program, do that. You just feel really good to see his resiliency.”
Sciambra, who batted .226 in 22 games (16 starts) last season, acknowledged that things didn’t immediately return to normal.
“I told myself that I wouldn’t be tentative at the beginning, but you can’t really help yourself until you get back into the flow of it,” Sciambra said. “It probably took a couple of weeks of playing in actual games to get back into it where you don’t have to think and just react instead, like I would any other time. So it took some time for that to happen, but I feel comfortable now.”
Sciambra said the hardest part of being sidelined — along with having to wear the brace during the summer heat — was not being able to contribute. He had arrived at LSU as a player who had to prove he was ready to contribute to a Southeastern Conference title contender, and he quickly gave the Tigers a dependable leadoff hitter and center fielder.
But Sciambra wasn’t able to participate in the latter stages of the Tigers’ run to the SEC title, and he wasn’t able to help as LSU fell one victory short of reaching the College World Series.
“The hardest part wasn’t any physical struggle,” he said, “but the mental struggle of being in the dugout and watching us play and not being able to be out there and make a difference.”
Sciambra said he’s not concerned about the first time he has to chase a fly ball to the wall in a game, but he has chased so many flies, “gap to gap, going back, coming in” since he was cleared to do so.
“There isn’t a flyball that you’ll see that I haven’t practiced 20 times before it happens in a game,” he said.
It looks as though Sciambra, who said he has lost 10 pounds or so he gained while he was mostly inactive, will be able to make a difference next season, though the outfield is competitive.
Sciambra played all three outfield positions in the fall, but Mainieri said Raph Rhymes will again be the left fielder after breaking the school record for batting average last season.
Center and right field are up for grabs among Sciambra, newcomers Mark Laird, Andrew Stevenson and Sean McMullen, as well as returnee Jared Foster.
“Chris is right in the hunt,” Mainieri said. “He was probably the most consistent outfielder offensively and defensively. The others showed more spectacular play at times. It was really good competition.”
Mainieri said the Tigers have much more speed in the outfield, and the competition there will carry over into the new year.
Though two-thirds of the starting outfield positions are yet to be determined, Mainieri said he sorted out the left side of his infield in the wake of the graduation of shortstop Austin Nola and third baseman Tyler Hanover.
Alex Bregman will be the shortstop and Christian Ibarra will be the third baseman.
Bregman isn’t the defensive player Nola was, but Mainieri said neither was any other shortstop he has coached in the last 30 years. Mainieri said, though, that Bregman is “a special player” who will bat either first or third next season.
Mainieri said he “lost a lot of sleep over the summer” contemplating replacing Nola’s glove, but after watching fall practice he feels “the dropoff (defensively) won’t be as great as I had feared.”
The settling of the left side of the infield means JaCoby Jones, who was in the mix at short, will return to second base and Mason Katz, who was in the mix at third, will return to first.
Tyler Moore, who also was in the mix at third, will compete for the designated hitter position.
Michael Barash, a recruit from Boca Raton, Fla., who reportedly will enroll at LSU early in January, will compete for the backup position behind catcher Ty Ross.
Mainieri said the pitching roles weren’t finalized during the fall, but he thinks the depth is improved.
Aaron Nola remains the No. 1 starter and Ryan Eades, who was more effective in the fall than he was late last season, remains the No. 2 starter. The No. 3 position remains undecided.
Left-hander Chris Cotton could grab that spot, but Mainieri would prefer to keep him in the bullpen, where he would compete with right-hander Nick Rumbelow for the closer’s spot, if someone else emerges as a reliable No. 3 starter.
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