Alex Bregman leads first-year LSU Tigers

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGFreshman infielder Alex bregman fields a ground ball at the LSU baseball team's media day and first practice Friday at Alex Box Stadium.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGFreshman infielder Alex bregman fields a ground ball at the LSU baseball team's media day and first practice Friday at Alex Box Stadium.

Nearly half of LSU’s baseball roster — 14 players out of 33 — is comprised of newcomers.

But Alex Bregman stands out from the crowd for a few reasons. First, all eyes will be on him as he takes over at shortstop for Austin Nola, a fixture there for three seasons who Tigers coach Paul Mainieri has said is the best defensive shortstop he has coached in 30 years.

Bregman will also stand out in the batter’s box as he bats third as a freshman.

“Right from the get-go, Alex Bregman is going to be a very vital player in our attack,” Mainieri said. “I’m putting a lot on this kid’s shoulders. He will be our three-hole hitter and starting shortstop as a true freshman, and that is a lot, but I have no doubt he can handle it.”

Bregman will be followed in the batting order by seniors Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz, which Mainieri said “will give us a formidable heart of the order.”

Mainieri said he already has been struck by Bregman’s passion for baseball, which he compared to that of former LSU All-America outfielder Mikie Mahtook.

“I’ve only been around this kid since August, but I have never been around a harder working, more dedicated, obsessed-with-the-sport-of-baseball kid than this guy,” said Mainieri, who cited an evening after fall practice had ended when Bregman and Katz chose to put in some extra work at Alex Box Stadium.

After they finished hitting in the indoor batting cages, Bregman asked Katz to hit him some grounders at about 10 p.m., when the only light in the
stadium came from bulbs underneath the bleachers.

“He was like, ‘Hey, hit me some grounders’ and I said, ‘Inside?’ and he said, ‘No, out here,’ ” Katz recalled. “I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t even see you at shortstop’ and he said, ‘Well, if I can field them in the dark, then I’ll be able to field them during the day.’ I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ ”

“So I hit him a bunch of ground balls, and then I hit him a fly ball and he lost it, and when the ball came down he barely caught it down by his hip and I was like, ‘If you can catch those at night you can definitely catch them during the day.’ ”

So Katz started hitting Bregman grounders and pop-ups all over the place.

“That’s what he’s about. He’s about working hard,” Katz said. “He never gets enough of baseball. He loves the game so much. He could sleep here and he wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Bregman, who’s from Albuquerque, N.M., called the fielding in the dark episode “a blast.”

Mainieri said it wouldn’t be fair to compare Bregman to Nola defensively, saying that on a scale of one to 10, Bregman is a 7.5 defensively, whereas Nola was “an 11-plus.”

“(But) he is a really good shortstop, and he is getting better,” Mainieri said. “He is very coachable. I love his enthusiasm. I love his athleticism. He has a strong, accurate arm and he has good hands. He just needs to play more. One of the things is that he didn’t play his whole senior year in high school (due to injury) but last summer he did some catching, he played third base, he played all over the place. Now he is starting to play shortstop every day again for the first time in a while.”

Bregman will be joined on the left side of the infield by junior college transfer Christian Ibarra at third base. Hitting coach Javi Sanchez said the sure-handed Ibarra exceeded expectations as a hitter during the fall.

Freshman outfielders Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson and junior Sean McMullen are competing with returning sophomore Chris Sciambra for the center field, right field and designated hitter spots. All four have good speed and bat left-handed.

“Coach Mainieri is going to put the best guys on the field,” McMullen said. “He talked to us about trusting him, and we promised him that we’d give him our trust that he’s put the best people on the field.”

Freshmen Chris Chinea and Michael Barash provide depth behind Katz at first and catcher Ty Ross.

Right-hander Russell Reynolds of Parkview Baptist, who called being a Tiger “a dream come true,” and junior-college left-hander Will LaMarche appear to be at the forefront among the six new pitchers. Both are likely to be in the bullpen, and LaMarche is in a four-man battle to close.

Pitching coach Alan Dunn said he was impressed with how quickly Reynolds has adapted to college and that he threw well in the fall.

LaMarche, who is about a year-and-a-half removed from Tommy John surgery, is a hard thrower and “an aggressive guy,” Dunn said.

LSU has four other freshman pitchers in right-handers Mitchell Sewald from Rummel High School, Taylor Butler from Barbe High School and Hunter Newman as well as left-hander Hunter Devall from Clinton. Junior right-hander Nate Fury, who played at Rummel and Delgado Community College, is a younger brother of former Tigers infielder Matt Fury.

“We are young, but the guys don’t act young,” Rhymes said. “If you come out and watch the way they work, you wouldn’t know who’s a freshman and who’s a senior.”

Katz said fall practice went “much more smoothly” because the freshmen were such quick learners.

“They’re very far ahead,” he said. “They’re ready to play in college baseball. They came in by storm and played really well in the fall. We had a lot of freshmen look fantastic in the fall. That’s really exciting to see.

“We had our team meetings and they paid attention. They asked a lot of questions of the older guys. They want to learn. They want to get into it as quickly as they possibly can. They helped a lot. They’re not learning as we go along, they’re learning on their own. Those guys are ready.”