Five Tigers try to provide protection backing up Bregman

Javi Sanchez, LSU’s hitting coach, has already prepared Alex Bregman for the worst.

In Year 2 in the Southeastern Conference, the big-hitting LSU shortstop will see a different approach from league teams.

They’ll pitch Bregman close, even hitting him at times. They’ll intentionally walk him.

They’ll throw him trash, steering clear of the plate’s center. They’ll toss off-speed pitches when fastballs are expected.

Thing is, no one’s really worried about LSU’s sophomore All-American.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily so much about how they’re going to attack Bregman,” Sanchez said recently from Skip Bertman Field, Bregman beaming balls during batting practice behind him. “It’s going to be more so how those guys are performing behind him over a given weekend.”

Who are those guys?

Who knows?

The early season story lines surrounding this team have centered on finding a closer, determining a starting pitcher rotation, replacing a starting catcher and filling the voids in the right side of the infield.

What’s been somewhat overlooked: replacing Mazon Katz and Raph Rhymes as the Nos. 4 and 5 hitters behind Bregman.

“Replacing two LSU legends like that, Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz, all we can do is do our best,” said sophomore catcher/first baseman Chris Chinea.

Ranked in the top 10 by most preseason polls, LSU begins the 2014 season Friday against UNO without two of its top three hitters from a year ago, a pair of players who protected and backed up three-hole hitter Bregman.

Rhymes began as the team’s cleanup hitter and was replaced by Katz midway through the season. The two combined for one-third of the team’s RBIs (119) and two-fifths of its home runs (20) last season.

As important, that duo protected Bregman and affected the pitches he received in the No. 3 spot.

The task now passes to a group of players including Chinea, Tyler Moore and Kade Scivicque — a trio competing at first base and catcher — and right fielder Jared Foster and third baseman Christian Ibarra, who hit in the sixth spot a year ago.

All five have a shot at holding that coveted spot as LSU’s cleanup guy.

Foster will start the season there, but the position behind Bregman could resemble the one behind the plate: a revolving door for at least the first few games.

“It’s a huge role,” Sanchez said. “Any time you’re trying to design a lineup and you’ve got your best hitter hitting in the 3 hole, you want the guy behind him to be able to make them pay if they’re going to pitch around him.”

Katz and Rhymes made sure that didn’t happen too much last season.

Bregman was intentionally walked only about three or four times in 2013, Sanchez said.

In the most meaningful games of the season — SEC regular season and SEC Tournament games and NCAA postseason games — Katz and Rhymes combined to hit .292 in at-bats behind Bregman in the same inning.

That number doesn’t include 10 walks and two hit-by-pitches.

“Depending on how hot the 4, 5 hole guy are over the course of a weekend will determine how they’re going to face Alex,” Sanchez said.

Coach Paul Mainieri said: “I’m worried about them pitching around Bregman because I like to see him swing that bat as often as he can.”

What LSU fan doesn’t?

Bregman drove in 52 runs on .369 average and had a team-leading 104 hits during his freshman season in 2013.

His success came, in part, because of those protectors in Katz and Rhymes.

The pressure’s on for this year’s Bregman backups. There might not be only be one, or even two, like last season.

“It’s a big spot,” Ibarra said. “That person has to come in in the clutch and get those big base hits for us. Mason went over the top and did something extraordinary, and Raph behind him too. I was behind Raph, and I think I handled that well.

“I think,” Ibarra said, “we’ll all get the job done.”