LSU’s Christian Ibarra proving people wrong

Associated Press photo by DAVE MARTINLSU shortstop Christian Ibarra fires to first after fielding a grounder by Vanderbilt's Tony Kemp in Southeastern Conference tournament championship game May 26. Ibarra owns a .931 fielding percentage. Show caption
Associated Press photo by DAVE MARTINLSU shortstop Christian Ibarra fires to first after fielding a grounder by Vanderbilt's Tony Kemp in Southeastern Conference tournament championship game May 26. Ibarra owns a .931 fielding percentage.

Christian Ibarra left coach Kevin Smith with less-than-favorable impression at an impromptu audition at the South Hills High School baseball field.

At first glance, Ibarra’s packaging didn’t help. Standing 5-foot-2, the freshman had a pudgy build and looked younger than 14 years old. His attire was a ratty T-shirt.

And Ibarra, who hailed from the Los Angeles suburb of La Puente, forgot a critical piece of attire, too. Changing into workout garb, the youngest of three brothers, realized: I don’t have cleats.

Faced with no alternative, Ibarra took the mound in the same black pair of Converse Chuck Taylors he’d tugged on before leaving the family’s home on a block of tidy bungalows and ranch houses on Evanwood Avenue.

“Where are your cleats?” Smith asked.

“Uh, I forgot them,” Ibarra answered.

With two strikes already against him, Ibarra’s velocity was average, but didn’t allay the doubt of Smith, who oversaw a Covinva, Calif.-based program that has produced major league players such as Cory Lidle and the Giambi brothers.

Ibarra’s prime motive was to convince Smith he was a slick-fielding shortstop with quick hands, able to fire the ball with a flick of a wrist. Instead, Smith left the field carrying a simple conclusion: This kid’s not very serious.

“It wasn’t long before he proved me wrong,” Smith said.

Seven years later, Ibarra trots on to the manicured grass at Alex Box Stadium to man third base for LSU, which opens a three-game super regional series against Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Friday. The doubts remain largely the same.

Plucked from Rio Hondo (Calif.) Community College, Ibarra has quelled concern. Replacing Tyler Hanover, Ibarra committed five errors in the season’s first three weeks. But he also went 26 consecutive games without an error and finished with a .931 fielding percentage, which ranks seventh in the Southeastern Conference.

At the plate, he’s gotten acclimated to mid-90s fastballs. Ibarra’s .325 batting average is fifth on the LSU roster, but he’s tied for the team lead with 17 doubles and tied for second with six home runs. He ranks 11th in the SEC in slugging (.493) and on-base percentage (.433).

“If we didn’t have Alex Bregman, then Christian Ibarra would be our everyday shortstop,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.

“That’s all we were looking for. So it’s really been lagniappe that he can hit and he’s such a good fielder.”

Ibarra honed his skills while young and on the cheap.

Ninety-nine cents was the price of his first training tool: A rubber super ball purchased at a dollar store. From the age of 7, Ibarra slung the ball at the brick façade on the family’s house, reading the ricochet and honing his reaction time.

“I used to just hit it against the wall and work on getting a good feel with my hands,” Ibarra said. “My brothers would just get tired of hitting me ground balls.”

As for his arm, split duty during Pony League and summer ball strengthened its muscles and tendons, and imparted endurance, too.

“It just got used to pain,” Ibarra said. “It’s a rubber arm. It doesn’t feel anything anymore.”

The high-front leg kick, a trademark of his swing, was imparted by Ricky Martinez, a former utility player at Rio Hondo who was a decade older than Ibarra but the eldest son of his summer-ball coach. While his hands were already quick and his eye astute, Martinez — who is also the brother Ibarra’s best friend, Dominic — had a simple purpose.

“If you go with this leg kick, you’re going to have more torque,” Martinez told Ibarra. “You’re going to be hitting bombs.”

How could Ibarra say no to that?

“From then on, I just started working on it,” Ibarra said. “I started watching videos of MLB players with leg kicks to see how they time it.”

Once again, the brick wall in the backyard became his proving ground. Until Elsa, his mother, intervened.

“Stop, Christian,” she told him. “You’re breaking the walls. You’re doing it too hard.”

Proving himself

Terrible workout aside, Smith soon found he needed Ibarra as a staple on the left side of the infield.

After a brief demotion to the practice squad, Smith moved Ibarra up to varsity. But he started at third base before ultimately moving him to his permanent home at shortstop. Over the next four seasons, he was a stalwart, voted the Huskies MVP four times. In his senior season, helped lead the Huskies to a California Southern Section Division 3 title.

But in a state overrun with elite talent, Ibarra’s stature and average academic record brought little attention from college recruiters. The only suitor was from Mike Salazar, the hard-nosed coach of Rio Hondo, some 15 minutes away in nearby Whittier, Calif., and known for its unorthodox practices.

“In California, either Fullerton or UCLA already have their guys picked out by the time they’re sophomores or juniors,” Salazar said. “Let’s just say a guy is a late bloomer and just smashing the ball. He’s going to fall through the cracks. Those schools already have their guys locked in, so they end up coming to us.”

The structure at Rio Hondo is essentially a crucible of discomfort.

“You’ve got to perform,” Salazar said. “If they don’t, we’ve got someone else who will. You’ve got to figure it out as a person, or it’s next man up — period.”

In fielding drills, Salazar will have players purposefully boot a ball or throw it away in the infield. Next, teammates form a circle, screaming and yelling to simulate a hostile environment. The Roadrunners practice striking out, and take a long walk to a dugout while being heckled while removing his batting gloves and helmet before putting them in a cubby.

“It’s not always about skills, but teaching them how to handle failure, to see it and move on,” Salazar said. “You’re going to make a mistake. It’s what you do after that where you become a real man.”

Ibarra learned quickly, too, how to draw Salazar’s ire. At a practice, Ibarra charged a ground ball but booted it trying to scoop it from the ground. He recovered, made the normal throw to first base and began going back to take another try.

“All you heard is a trash can getting thrown, him slapping a wall and throwing some bats,” Ibarra said.

Yet Salazar knew the rare player he had in Ibarra, who started his freshman year and evolved into a top shortstop prospect by the end of sophomore season. In 45 games that season, he batted .396 with six home runs and 50 RBIs, while ranking ninth in the CCCAA with a .615 slugging percentage behind smacking a league-high 20 doubles.

“He didn’t know what I could do with my power, and toward the end of the season he moved up to second (in the order),” said Ibarra, who became the most consistent hitter for a team that went 40-5 last season. “My second season, he put me third all year.”

Ibarra’s acumen at shortstop only needed to be honed after fielding .974 and turning 27 double plays his sophomore season. Oddly, it meant slowing Ibarra down, or at least helping him find a “control speed” where he could blend a strong arm and quick release with the consistency to turn a routine play 10 times in a row, Salazar said.

“It’s funny — with Christian, I had to slow him down,” Salazar said. “He had no trouble, but he was doing it different every time. We just had to help him get it down.”

Recruiting help

Unearthing Ibarra, though, required LSU hitting coach/recruiting coordinator Javi Sanchez to dial up a former minor-league teammate from his Single-A days in the Minnesota Twins organzation.

In late April 2012, Mainieri dispatched him to California — where Sanchez had been hunting three or four years — to find a replacements for Hanover and Austin Nola. So, he called Jeff Mousser, with whom he played a single season in Elizabethon, Tenn., and currently a scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Mousser tossed out “four or five names” but little else to Sanchez, though he included Ibarra at Rio Hondo.

Yet Sanchez knew Rio Hondo and Salazar. A year earlier, Salazar tried to persuade LSU to take Ibarra’s predcessor in Andrew Mistone, who had drawn interest from Ole Miss. With Austin Nola still in the fold, though, Sanchez and the Tigers passed. But Sanchez rang up Salazar in the fall.

“Hey, here we are again,” Sanchez said. “We would love a left-side-of-the-infielder.”

“I’ve got the guy for you,” Sanchez told him.

During a week-long trip to Southern California, Sanchez took in two Rio Hondo games against Victor Valley College, a pair in which Ibarra went 5-for-9 with a home run, two doubles and six RBIs. Sanchez also swung by Rio Hondo’s practice to watch Ibarra work more in the field.

Naturally, Salazar tried to ratchet up the pressure.

“Ibarra, there’s a guy from LSU here. Are you scared?” Salazar asked.

“No,” Ibarra said.

Satisfied, Sanchez brought Ibarra to Baton Rouge two weeks later for LSU’s series against Georgia. Ibarra was familiar with LSU’s name, but Alex Box ultimately swayed him. Watching Mason Katz launch a game-winning grand slam for an 8-4 victory before 8,767 fans might have sealed the deal.

“I was done right there,” said Ibarra, who committed shortly after.

Mainieri a believer

Last fall, Ibarra provided another audition — this time for Mainieri in LSU’s batting cage.

Watching Ibarra step in, Mainieri remembered Sanchez’s fears over Ibarra’s swing mechanics and whether he could adapt to the SEC pitchers. “My expectations were, ‘Slick fielder, not a very good hitter,’ ” Mainieri said. Five or six swings from Ibarra, and Mainieri was a convert.

“That high leg-kick is a mechanism for him to stay back on the ball,” Mainieri said. “He doesn’t get fooled, either. It’s not like he high-leg-kicks and then jumps at the ball. He doesn’t get fooled on breaking balls.”

Mainieri turned to his assistant for playful chiding — a bigger bit of truth.

“Javi, you underestimated this kid,” Mainieri said. “He’s got something you can’t teach.”