LSU coach Paul Mainieri has been conducting a season-long search for the ninth and final piece to his starting lineup.
The Tigers have played 49 of 56 regular-season games, and Mainieri has tried half a dozen players with some regularity as either the third outfielder or the designated hitter, but no one has been consistent enough both offensively and defensively to hang on to the position.
Mainieri has made it clear that freshman center fielder Andrew Stevenson’s defense is so good that he could grab the final spot with little more than minimal contributions at the plate. Stevenson provided a taste of what Mainieri has been looking for in the final two games of a sweep against Florida last weekend.
Stevenson could be just one or two hitless games from giving the revolving door another spin, but he’ll be in the starting lineup when LSU begins a series at Texas A&M on Thursday with an opportunity to stay there.
“He’s such a difference-maker as a center fielder,” Mainieri said of Stevenson, who made two diving catches against the Gators. “If he can just do some things offensively — I don’t care what his batting average is, if he can just put the ball on the ground, drop a bunt and draw a walk, hit a ground ball to second to score a runner from third base.”
Stevenson did several of those things last weekend. He entered Game 2 of the series Friday night as a defensive replacement and his only at-bat came with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth inning. Stevenson legged out a routine grounder to shortstop, driving in a run, and he got a second run batted in when Ty Ross hustled around from second and beat the throw home from first.
In the Tigers’ 18-6 romp Saturday, Stevenson didn’t have any of the more impressive drives among the 19 hits, but he did contribute offensively. He came up with runners on second and third with one out and hit a grounder to second to bring home a run that broke a 2-2 tie in the second inning.
He started an eight-run rally in the sixth inning by beating out a bunt for a single and finished the weekend 2 for 7 with three RBIs. If he can match that modest productivity with any consistency he’ll see him name on the lineup card on a daily basis as LSU approaches the postseason.
“I put a few balls in play, made something happen,” Stevenson said. “It gave me some confidence that I can keep doing it.”
Mark Laird — like Stevenson, a speedy freshman who has had his ups and downs adjusting to the challenges of Southeastern Conference pitching — has been in the starting lineup for 46 games, mostly in center field, but he shifts to right field when Stevenson’s in the lineup.
“As good as Laird is (defensively), Stevenson is better,” Mainieri said. “He covers more ground. He has great instincts, he dives well for balls. He’s going to make a couple of plays a game that’s going to influence the decision.”
Stevenson, who had no RBIs in SEC play until last weekend, is batting .111 in SEC games and .185 overall.
Defensively, though, he hasn’t made an error on the best fielding team in the SEC (.982 fielding percentage).
A former wide receiver on the St. Thomas More High School football team, Stevenson batted .546 as a high school senior and .460 as a junior. But the pitching he has faced this season presents an entirely different challenge.
“In high school you’d get guys throwing 80 miles an hour,” Stevenson said. “Over here you’re seeing 90, 90-plus just about every day. They can put it wherever they want it and they have a really good breaking ball. The biggest difference is seeing all the quality arms.
“Everybody who throws in the SEC is going to have something that they’re really good at — whether it’s a breaking ball or an overpowering fastball, so you have to be ready for that. It takes a little while to get adjusted to.”
Mainieri hopes Stevenson has adjusted well enough that the coach feels comfortable enough with Stevenson’s bat to keep his glove in the lineup.
“He just wants me to get on base any way I can. It doesn’t matter how,” Stevenson said. “Just make stuff happen, get on base, take a walk, lay down a bunt, get a base hit every now and then and just play solid outfield.”
Mainieri said thinks of the nine-hole position like a second leadoff spot, meaning he’d prefer to have a speedy player who can jump-start a rally on the bases — provided he gets there often enough.
“There’s a little less pressure (batting ninth), knowing you don’t have to be the main hitter,” Stevenson said.
“You can just get on base and let the other guys drive you in,” he said.
Mainieri said he’ll stick with the same rotation he used last weekend, starting left-hander Cody Glenn on Thursday, right-hander Aaron Nola on Friday and right-hander Ryan Eades on Saturday. … Several players missed practice Monday and a few missed practice Tuesday because they were taking final exams. … The Tigers will head to College Station, Texas, on Wednesday and practice after arriving.
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