Raph Rhymes’ goal: Get LSU Tigers to Omaha

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIGLSU outfielder Raph Rhymes hits a two-run home run last season.
Advocate file photo by BILL FEIGLSU outfielder Raph Rhymes hits a two-run home run last season.

LSU outfielder Raph Rhymes was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and led the nation with a school-record .431 batting average last season.

That could make it pretty hard to envision an encore performance, but Rhymes, a senior from Monroe, doesn’t really think in those terms. He said the best thing to do is not to focus on how to follow last year’s batting average, just as he never focused on it while he was compiling it, which was 21 points higher than the previous record held by Russ Johnson, the only other Tiger to hit .400.

“Last year was definitely special. It’s something I’ll never forget and my family will never forget,” Rhymes said. “It’ll be a part of LSU history. That’s awesome. That’s something I’ve always dreamed about.

“(But) I’ve never been somebody that worries about batting average or personal statistics. That kind of helped me, then I definitely think I ran into some luck somewhere along the way last year. I remember a couple of balls that were lost in the sun and stuff like that, so I definitely had some luck on my side.”

Rhymes said the only goal he has set is to help lead the Tigers to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

Another record-setting batting average would certainly help in that regard but probably isn’t necessary, because the Tigers, who begin the season Friday against Maryland in Alex Box Stadium, seem stronger up and down the batting order.

Freshman shortstop Alex Bregman, one of the more-highly touted recruits in the country, will bat third as Mason Katz moves from No. 3 to No. 5, hitting behind Rhymes’ cleanup spot.

“I think Raph is really going to enjoy this season because of (Bregman). Just adding that one more bat in the middle of the order takes a lot of pressure off of Raph,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Last year he was able to handle it, but you saw when Raph was out with the concussion and when Raph didn’t hit well the last weekend of the season the effect that it had on our offense.”

Rhymes suffered a concussion when he was hit by a pitch at Florida in early April and missed three games, but just one SEC game. Late in the season, the law of averages caught up with Rhymes, who was flirting with .500 well past midseason. He went just 1-for-13 as the Tigers lost two out of three to Stony Brook in a super regional.

“That’s a lot of pressure to put on one kid where you have to do it every day,” Mainieri said. “We counted on him unbelievably. He is such a vital part of our team; he didn’t care about his average, he just wanted to do his part to help us win. I think that is what the greatness of Raph is. The batting average is not the important thing.

“Now I think we’re going to have better balance in our order, and I think Raph will love that. I think he’s still going to have a great year. I think it allows him to relax and have fun.”

Rhymes, who tried and failed to walk on at LSU in 2008, transferred to LSU-Eunice and was the National Junior College Player of the Year in 2010, earning a scholarship to LSU for the 2011 season.

He voluntarily gave up that scholarship before last season so Mainieri could use it to strengthen the roster.

Hitting coach Javi Sanchez said Rhymes’ “even-keel” demeanor helps him deal with failure, and will come in handy in the wake of last season’s record success.

“Being that baseball is a game of failure, I don’t think that when he has a rough at-bat or a rough day that it affects his next at-bat or his next day,” Sanchez said. “He has that ability to maintain poise, and he has tremendous hitting ability. People don’t really realize how fast his bat really is and the bat speed he can generate with the barrel staying in the (strike) zone.”

Sanchez said Rhymes has to be prepared for teams to pitch him more carefully this season, understanding he might not see a single fastball during a particular at-bat.

“Obviously this year, teams are going to pitch him a little more difficult,” Sanchez said. “I think it was halfway, three-quarters of the way into the season last year before everybody caught wind of just how really good of a hitter he was, so there might be situations this year where he might have to sit on some off-speed pitches.”

If Bregman lives up to expectations and Katz is as steady a run producer as he was last season when he hit a team-high 13 homers and had 52 runs batted in (one off of Rhymes’ team-best), teams won’t be able to get too careful with Rhymes.

Though opponents undoubtedly will approach Rhymes in a manner based on his batting average last year, he’ll take a different approach.

“If you think you have this game figured out, you’re wrong,” Rhymes said. “This game can humble you pretty quickly. Just because I had a good year last year doesn’t mean anything this year. I’ve got to come out with the right mindset, prepare myself like I did every other year. I have to go about my business every day like I want to get better.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘You hit .430 last year, do you feel pressure to do it again this year?’ I really don’t look at it as pressure, because my goal isn’t to go up there and hit .430, it’s to help this team win and get to Omaha. So if I keep focused on that, it makes it easy on me, and I don’t look at it as pressure.”