Infield’s left side, pitching top priorities
“The first priority is to see who can come the closest to the level of Austin Nola.” Paul Mainieri, LSU coach
LSU begins fall baseball practice Sunday as it begins its search for a new left side of the infield as well as a new No. 1 starter and a closer.
Who ultimately becomes the successors to Austin Nola at shortstop, Tyler Hanover at third base, Kevin Gausman as the No. 1 starter and Nick Goody as the closer won’t be finalized until preseason practice. But how the candidates for those openings and others respond in intra-squad games and progress during the fall will set the tone for the competition in the preseason.
“The general goals for the fall are always the same,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “Number one is to teach the players how to play the game the way we want them to play it: to be very aggressive, play with confidence, and play fundamentally sound baseball.
“The second thing is to evaluate the talent on hand. We want to put them in competitive situations and see who that brings the best out of.”
The infield situation will sort itself out like dominoes falling, Mainieri said. The first domino is to see who will replace Nola at shortstop, then who will replace Hanover at third. The remaining contenders will battle it out for the second base job.
The competition to replace Nola consists of newcomers Alex Bregman and Christian Ibarra as well as JaCoby Jones, who started at second base last season, and Casey Yocom, who backed up primarily at second.
“The first priority is to see who can come the closest to the level of Austin Nola,” Mainieri said.
Mason Katz, who played first base and the outfield last season, played some third base and routinely practiced at third in the Cape Cod League during the summer. He’s joined in the third base competition by Tyler Moore, who caught and played first and was the designated hitter at times as a freshman last season, and newcomer Geonte’ Jackson.
“I got to work on a lot of things,” Katz said. “I know I got better for sure this summer. I’m happy to be back with the team now and to get going. Coach wants to work with me at third and see if I can help the team there.
“Coach Mainieri loves moving things around. I’m sure he’ll put me in all kinds of different places. It really depends on how our team looks best, whichever gives us a chance to win games, whether it’s me at third, first, right left, any place, second, who knows? He can put me anywhere.”
Mainieri said center fielder Chris Sciambra is fully recovered from a neck injury he suffered when he crashed into the outfield wall chasing a fly ball at Auburn last season. He’ll compete with three newcomers: Mark Laird, Andrew Stevenson and Sean McMullen.
Whoever wins the center field job can be very confident that Raph Rhymes will be the guy next to them in left. Rhymes set a school record last season with a .431 batting average.
Rhymes also played in the Cape Cod League for about a month. He said he missed a little time after fouling a ball off his ankle, but still had “good work.”
“I took it as a time to really work on my outfield game,” he said. “I played right field pretty much every game, so I worked on my arm strength. I think throwing from right field helped a little bit.”
Rhymes said that even though his defense was the main thing he worked on, he certainly didn’t neglect his offense.
“You’ve got to stay sharp,” he said. “As soon as you think you’ve got it figured out, it’ll come back and humble you pretty quickly. I certainly don’t have hitting figured out at all. I worked on my hitting every day, whether it was hitting to the opposite field or pulling the ball.”
Gausman’s departure as the No. 4 pick in the Major League Baseball draft left a large void at the top of the rotation. No. 2 starter Aaron Nola and No. 3 Ryan Eades are in position to move up, but there are plenty of candidates to move ahead if they falter.
Left-handed Chris Cotton, who had an outstanding season setting up Goody last season, made three starts in the summer as Mainieri ponders whether to move him into the rotation.
“It was a test for my arm to see if I could extend my innings, and it went well,” Cotton said. “I was able to keep my velocity throughout the innings, and that was the thing I wanted to see.”
Cotton said he was limited to 65 pitches in his first start, 75 in his second and 80 in his final one. He pitched 16 innings for the Lakeshore (Wis.) Chinooks of the Northwoods League, winning two games, compiling a 0.56 earned run average and striking out 13 in 16 innings.
Cotton’s endurance won’t be tested in the fall because Mainieri said no pitcher will throw more than three innings at a time.
Other veterans who are candidates for the rotation are Kurt McCune, Cody Glenn and Nick Rumbelow, who was a reliever last season.
Mainieri said he likes several new pitchers who could find themselves in virtually any role by the start of the season: Mitchell Sewald, Hunter Newman, Russell Reynolds, and Will LaMarche.