The LSU baseball team that took the field for its first preseason practice Friday appears to be more versatile than the one that won the Southeastern Conference championship last season.
The Tigers have more left-handed hitters, more speed, fewer weak spots in the order and an ability to toggle between small ball and long ball.
The starting lineup will crystallize in the three weeks leading up to the opener against Maryland, but the remaining options appear stronger than they were last season, when coach Paul Mainieri often scrambled to cobble together the final spots in the lineup.
“I think this year’s team is going to be much more balanced than last year’s team,” Mainieri said at Media Day, kicking off his seventh season. “I thought last year’s team had some really exceptional players, but we had two or three spots in our order that were not at the level we would have liked to be. I think this year’s lineup has a much better chance to be solid (from Nos.) 1 through 9.”
The middle of the order has been bolstered by the addition of freshman shortstop Alex Bregman, who will bat third, followed by senior left fielder Raph Rhymes, who batted a school-record .431 last season, and senior first baseman Mason Katz, who had a team-high 13 homers.
The batting order above and below that trio will be finalized during preseason practice, but second baseman JaCoby Jones, catcher Ty Ross and third baseman Christian Ibarra figure to be in there somewhere.
As for the last two outfield spots and the designated hitter, that competition demonstrates the difference between last season and this season.
“We have a good group that gives me enough options to manage a game,” Mainieri said.
After center fielder and leadoff hitter Chris Sciambra suffered a season-ending neck injury in the second SEC series last season, Mainieri needed someone who could bat leadoff, run well and play solid defense in center field.
It took two months of juggling to find a dependable leadoff hitter in shortstop Austin Nola, though he didn’t provide the type of speed that’s preferred at the top of the order.
Arby Fields provided a rare left-handed bat. He had speed and could play center field, but neither his hitting nor his defense was sufficiently consistent.
But this year, Mainieri has multiple options. Sciambra is healthy, and he’s joined by three newcomers who can fill the same role he filled before being injured — freshmen Mark Laird of Monroe and Andrew Stevenson of Youngsville and junior Sean McMullen of Metairie. All three newcomers can run and can bat left-handed.
“I felt for the last couple of years that we have had a shortage of left-handed presence and even speed in our lineup,” Mainieri said. “Two of those four players are going to play center field and right field; the third one may end up being the designated hitter. That way, we would have three left-handed hitters that could run in the lineup at one time.”
The Tigers stole 41 bases in 74 attempts last season.
“We’re going to take more chances on offense and push the issue,” said Sciambra, who played at Catholic High School. “I think we’re going to steal some bases this year and bunt for hits, and that’s what I like to do, and that’s what a lot of the guys in our outfield like to do. So we’ll definitely put some pressure on the defense.”
Laird appears to be the fastest in the group.
“If he hits the ball to the left of the pitcher, he’s safe. He’s that fast,” Katz said of Laird. “That’s a key thing to our lineup. We haven’t had the speed like that in a long time.
“That adds something, especially when you have power behind it. That definitely leaves a little extra thump to your lineup.”
Mainieri said the versatility in the lineup is partly because this is the first recruiting class that was assembled with consideration for the switch to lighter bats two years ago.
“We needed left-handed hitting, and we needed fast guys, because if a guy can drop a bunt, hit, or handle the bat and get a hit-and-run, or steal a base, or score from first on a short double, that’s going to make us a better team offensively,” Mainieri said. “But I don’t want to become just a little speedy team.”
Mainieri said he thinks he has a team that can manufacture runs and also use a three-run homer to get back in a game when needed.
“I still want to have balance,” he said. “I still want to have four or five guys in our lineup that can hit the ball out of the ballpark. But I also want to be able to manufacture runs if the need is there to do so.”