Ex-junior college standouts give LSU baseball a boost

Sean McMullen never had this goal in mind: Play junior college baseball.

Here was a guy who starred in high school at Brother Martin and took major college visits before a knee injury scared off Division I teams.

Regrets from that route? Not a chance.

“I wouldn’t take those two years back for anything,” he said.

More than halfway through the 2014 season, LSU is leaning on former junior college players more than it ever has in coach Paul Mainieri’s eight years at the school.

LSU (25-8-1, 6-5-1 Southeastern) is using four former junior college players in its everyday lineup: McMullen, who plays outfield if not designated hitter; Conner Hale at first or second base; third baseman Christian Ibarra; and catcher/DH Kade Scivicque.

The four are among the nine most-used position players. In Mainieri’s first six seasons, LSU didn’t have more than two junior college players in its top nine. One year, the Tigers used none.

This year, four?

“If you have an immediate need, if you get a kid from the right program, they can step in and do a good job for you,” said Mainieri, the son of legendry junior college coach Demie Mainieri. “I don’t think you can build an entire team with junior college players because the turnover would be too quick and you like to have players grow in your program. (The) correct balance is a good thing.”

Ahead of a key weekend series with the Razorbacks (21-13, 6-6), LSU’s four ex-junior college starters have accounted for 43 percent of the RBIs (69) and 49 percent of the hits (127) among the everyday starting nine.

And how many Division I scholarship offers did those four receive? None.

“I can’t explain how much of a better baseball player I developed into in just two years at Delgado (Community College),” McMullen said. “I think I had 200 at-bats a year for two years straight.”

More experience was key, but there are other reasons high school seniors who had zero offers develop into big-time college stars. Mainieri analyzed the group.

Hale was a late-bloomer who was somewhat small as a high school senior. Scivicque was from a small, isolated area (Maurepas) where attention was tough to get.

Ibarra is a short guy who lacks speed, and McMullen had that knee injury and “isn’t real tall,” the coach said.

For some seniors, junior college is as alluring as signing with a major college. They’re eligible for the MLB draft after both their freshman and sophomore seasons.

Recruiting junior college kids is somewhat of a dice roll, but it’s no more risky than plucking freshmen from high school, Mainieri said.

The key is finding those players who fit into a window: They’re not good enough to be drafted, but they’re good enough to play major college baseball.

“Occasionally you miss, of course,” Mainieri said.

The coach admits he missed last year with 6-foot-9 hard-throwing David Palladino, whom the Tigers expected to contribute to their weekend starting rotation this season. He signed with the Yankees after being selected in the fifth round of the draft.

Mainieri’s recruitment of junior college players hasn’t changed much over the years. In the past five seasons, he has had at least six but no more than nine on his roster, including pitchers.

But how he uses, at least, his junior college position players has changed.

The 2009 national championship team didn’t use a single junior college player in its everyday lineup. The 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012 teams all used two. In 2013, LSU used three: Raph Rhymes, McMullen and Ibarra.

This season’s quartet tops that. There’s one real reason behind it, Ibarra said.

“Experience,” he said.

Ibarra is a California native whom hitting coach Javi Sanchez found late in his last year at Rio Hondo College. He left high school with zero offers. Two years later as a sophomore in junior college, Ibarra had offers from Oklahoma and Oregon before LSU came along.

It was unexpected.

“I was like, ‘Oh crap,’ ” Ibarra said.

McMullen is a different case, and so was Scivicque. LSU somewhat monitored their progress at junior college.

They weren’t ripe out of high school. Two years later, they were perfect for the plucking.

“It’s just like a pro scout taking a kid out of high school or a kid out of LSU,” Mainieri said. “More kids are going to hit out of LSU than they are out of high school.”