LSU opens preseason practice Friday at Alex Box

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BATON ROUGE, La. – The ninth-ranked LSU baseball team held its annual Media Day activities and opened preseason practice on a cloudy Friday afternoon in Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field.

LSU, ranked No. 9 in the USA Today preseason poll, returns six players who filled everyday starting roles on last season’s College World Series runners-up team, though the Tigers must replace their entire weekend starting rotation from 2017.

“I think there’s a wide range of what people might think about our team this year because of the newness of our team,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who has directed the Tigers to one national championship, five College World Series appearances, four SEC overall titles, six SEC division titles and six SEC tournament championships in 11 seasons.

“We have 32 active players on our team this year, of which 17 are first-year players. If you do the math, we only have 15 returning players from last year’s College World Series runners-up team. Fortunately for us, those 15 players are very significant guys.”

Returning starters include junior outfielder Antoine Duplantis, sophomore outfielder Zach Watson, sophomore shortstop Josh Smith, senior outfielder/DH Beau Jordan, sophomore third baseman Jake Slaughter and senior catcher/first baseman Nick Coomes.

The Tigers are bolstered by the return of junior first baseman Bryce Jordan, a 2016 All-SEC designated hitter that missed the 2017 season due to a knee injury, and junior infielder Chris Reid is another returning player with starting experience.

On the mound, LSU will have to replace its entire weekend starting pitching rotation as Alex Lange and Jared Poche’ have moved on to professional baseball, and right-hander Eric Walker, a 2017 Freshman All-American, will be sidelined in 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Junior right-hander Caleb Gilbert (7-1, 2.16 ERA in 2017) and sophomore right-hander Zack Hess (7-1, 3.12 ERA, four saves in 2017) are the top returning members of the LSU staff.

“When we look at the pitching staff,” Mainieri said, “there’s where the anxiety can be created because of the inexperience. We lost our entire starting rotation from last year. I do know this, I have a lot of confidence in Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess as returning pitchers. Both of them came into their own in the second half of last year.

“We have some arms that we think can step in and become starting pitchers. We have another group of guys that we are going to use out of the bullpen initially. I feel excited about our pitching staff. Of course, I think we have the best pitching coach in the country in Alan Dunn, and I believe that he will bring those guys along very quickly.”

The Tigers’ talented group of 17 newcomers consists of 11 pitchers and six position players. The class contains four players that were selected in the 2018 MLB Draft – right-handed pitcher AJ Labas, right-handed pitcher Cam Sanders, outfielder/left-handed pitcher Daniel Cabrera and right-handed pitcher Nick Storz. Other new players to watch include catcher Hunter Feduccia, infielders Hal Hughes, Brandt Broussard and Nick Webre, and pitchers Ma’Khail Hilliard and Devin Fontenot.

The class was rated as high as No. 5 in the nation in the annual recruiting rankings.

LSU opens the season at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 16, when the Tigers play host to Notre Dame in Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field.

LSU Baseball Media Day
January 26, 2018

LSU HEAD COACH PAUL MAINIERI

Opening statement …
“It’s good to be with you all. It seems like the perpetual season of college baseball. I feel like we just finished in Omaha, and here we are ready to get going again. This is always the most exciting day of the year for me, the first official day of practice. We are three weeks away from opening day. Every year the anxiety of not knowing what the new season holds keeps me young. I worry about everything, of course, but the preseason polls have come out. In the polls we are rated anywhere between No. 9-17. We all know the value of preseason polls are probably not worth the time that they take to do them. You earn what you get on the field. I think there’s a wide range of what people might think about our team this year because of the newness of our team. We have 32 active players on our team this year, of which 17 are first year players If you do the math, we only have 15 returning players from last year’s runners up team. Fortunately for us, those 15 players are very significant guys. One thing everybody will think about is that we lost four every day players in Greg Deichmann, who was an All-American, hit 19 home runs, a senior double-play combination in Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman and of course, the rock of our team, the catcher Michael Papierski.

“Math tells you we have five returning players in starters, but I feel that we have six returners because we are getting Bryce Jordan back, who two years ago was the First Team All-SEC designated hitter. If you feel like you have six returning players, two-thirds of your lineup, you feel like you have some veteran presence out there, some leadership. I’m pretty excited about all of those guys. When we look at the pitching staff, there’s where the anxiety can be created. We lost our entire starting rotation from last year. Alex Lange was a first-round draft choice, Jared Poche’ leaves as a senior, graduated, won the most games in the history of our program here at LSU. The unfortunate thing of course was Eric Walker, suffering an elbow injury in Omaha. Only God knows what that would have meant had he been able to stay healthy. Maybe it just would have made the difference, but the other part of that is that he’s going to miss the 2018 season in its entirety. Although he has begun throwing and he looked pretty good yesterday when I watched him, he’s on target but we just can’t rush him back. I just can’t do that to the young man. He’s going to need a full 12 months of rehabilitation and throwing before he’s ready to pitch in any sort of competitive way. That will be after our season has expired. We will be happy to have him back, of course, for the 2019 season.

“I’ve done a little reflection of our pitching and as I can recall, I can only remember two seasons where we had to replace the entire starting rotation. The first time it happened was between the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In 2008, our starting rotation was Ryan Verdugo who won nine games as a left-hander, Blake Martin, who was another solid left-hander starter and Jared Bradford. After we went to Omaha, two of them signed professionally and one of them graduated. We went into the 2009 season with a lot of question marks on our rotation. Anthony Ranaudo became our Friday night starter. I think he had pitched in 10 innings or less that season before. Our second starter was Louis Coleman, who had a very rough sophomore and had a much better second half of his junior year but pitched exclusively out of the bullpen. Our third starter was Daniel Bradshaw going into the season, but he suffered an oblique strain shortly into the season That meant I moved Louis Coleman into the rotation. Our third starter was Austin Ross, who had pitched exclusively out of the bullpen the year before as a freshman. We went on to win the national championship. It can be done. I don’t want to speak too much about the other time that I remember. I think that was 2010-11 when we had three freshmen in our rotation: Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and Kurt McCune. Of course, we got off to a rough start that year in conference play, and of course, we recovered but a little too late. That was a disappointing ending to that season. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

“I do know this: I have a lot of confidence in Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess as returning pitchers. Both of them came into their own in the second half of last year. Everybody will remember Gilbert’s outstanding performance against Oregon State. You can’t pitch much better than that on the biggest stage, but he was pitching excellent ball even up to that point. He pitched an excellent game in Game 1 of the SEC Tournament as a starter. He beat Mississippi State coming out of the bullpen, the clincher that sent us to Omaha. He came in and pitched the last four or five innings, pitched really well. Caleb Gilbert has emerged as a guy in his third year. He’s oozing with confidence. He’s got outstanding stuff. It’s his time to come in his own.

“Zack Hess, of course, was the big headliner out there in Omaha. Man, he looked like a big league ready relief pitcher out there in Omaha. The temptation certainly is to keep him in that role. However, without having veteran starting pitchers, you have to take your best arm and try to get as many innings out of him to see if he can impact the games in that way. We are going to give him a chance to be a starting pitcher as well. He’s done a little bit of refining of his delivery along with Alan Dunn, trying to be a little less effort where maybe he can keep a little more gas in the tank for the later innings. Hopefully hold his velocity a little bit longer. His velo may come down a little bit from the 97s he was showing in Omaha, but hopefully he can keep those 93s, 94s deeper into the ballgame. So far, he’s looked really well in our simulated games. Today will be his first scrimmage. He and Caleb Gilbert are scheduled to go three innings today.

“Our third starter right now, if I had to project, would be Todd Peterson. You remember, I was really high on Todd Peterson last year. He had a couple of unfortunate things happen that kind of had his season come to a screeching halt. Had he been healthy, he would have pitched in the first game, he would have started the first game against Florida in the finals. Unfortunately, his shoulder was not capable of doing that. He spent his entire summer and fall getting in better condition. He’s done a lot of work with his throwing arm as far as increasing his strength and flexibility. Honestly, he was throwing outstandingly in fall practice and especially in these early simulated games. He has a chance to be a really good pitcher. My guess is that he will get the game three start opening weekend.

“We have a kid named Cam Sanders, whose father Scott pitched several years in the Major League. He’s from Thibodaux, Louisiana, but he attended Northwest Florida Community College for a couple of years. It’s going to be uncanny how much he reminds you of Aaron Nola on the mound—his face, his body actions, even his delivery and arm slot, everything. If he has Aaron Nola’s command, then we have a scoop. He’s got really good stuff. He can throw an excess of 90 miles per hour with a curve ball and a breaking ball, a change-up. If he can corral his control, he’s not really wild. He’s just right around the zone and throws about half and half balls and strikes. If we can get that closer to 60-40 or 70-30 percentage, we are going to be in business with Cam Sanders. We have some arms that we think can step in and become starting pitchers. We have another group of guys that we are going to use out of the bullpen initially. I feel excited about our pitching staff Of course, I think we have the best pitching coach in the country in Alan Dunn, and I believe that he will bring those guys along very quickly.”

On Sean Ochinko as the Tigers’ new hitting coach and how he will work with Micah Gibbs …
“I’m really excited about it. I think I told you this when I hired him, Micah is a very modern-day, hitting coach. What I mean by that is very much into the analytics, the mechanics, the statistics and those kinds of things. The fact that he can’t go out there and coach on the field, doesn’t prevent him from sitting in front of a computer and watching video, analyzing and doing those type of things that I believe are one of his strengths. I believe that Sean is geared more toward the interaction with the players from a motivational standpoint, energy and enthusiasm. He knows the game inside and out. He has a great way with the kids. I think Micah is going to feed a lot of information to Sean that Sean will then decipher how much he wants to use it and apply it with the players and with the offense in general. I think it’s going to be a good combination. I just can’t emphasize enough how heartbroken I am for Micah. This was really an unfortunate thing that happened, but I am extremely excited about Sean Ochinko. I think our players have embraced him as much as I knew they would. He has an infections personality. He’s full of energy. He has that youthful enthusiasm. He just stopped playing a couple of years ago, so the players can really relate to him. They enjoy him, and I think he is going to be tremendous in his role.”

On the difficulty of Ochinko being added to the staff with the season nearing …
“Honestly, I’m not concerned about it at all. I know that sounds crazy, but Sean was with us last year. I know, Sean was an undergraduate student because after his six-year professional career, he returned to finish the degree requirements over the course of the last year and a half. He helped us as an undergraduate coach, so he’s very familiar with all of the returning players, including Bryce Jordan. Bryce was healthy all fall right up until right before the season began. He knows all of their swings. He knows their temperaments. He knows their strengths, and he knows their limitations, and they know him. Every one of the returning players came to me and talked to me about what they felt the impact that Sean had on our team last year just with his presence. He had to at times take a step back for fear that internally in the dynamics of a coaching staff that he didn’t step on Micah’s toes and overstep his boundaries and give information to the players that may have conflicted with the coaching that they were already receiving. That showed great feel by Sean on his part, and that really impressed me to see how mature he was and able to handle all of that. The new players, he’s not as familiar with. He did coach in the Purple vs. Gold World Series as a guest coach, so he got to see all of those guys play three games there. He’s been around. We have talked to him. He lives here in Baton Rouge. He’d come around, and we would visit all of the time. You’re only talking about a handful of guys: Hunter Feduccia, Brandt Broussard, Daniel Cabrera. Nick Webre, Hal Hughes and Braden Doughty. It’s really not a lot of guys. Quite frankly, the guys that are new have pretty simple swings for the most part. I’ve already seen the work that he’s done with someone like Jake Slaughter in these first few days that he’s been on the job. He’s really helped him immensely already, trying to calm him down, not have as much wasted movement and maybe developing more of a consistent swing path. I think he’s really going to help a guy like Jake Slaughter.”

On having Zack Hess mimic a role like Louis Coleman in the 2009 season …
“We haven’t talked about it. It’s a good idea, but I don’t know that I want to do it with Zack because of his prospect status. It might just be a little bit too much for him right out of the gate. You never say never on anything. I want to give Zack the chance to do the normal routine between starts to try to build up his endurance and those kinds of things. Right now, our total focus is on him just being a starting pitcher. Let’s see what the rest of the staff does and how they perform. Somewhere down the road, that’s an option, but we haven’t really discussed it at this point.”

On what the players learned from last season’s result …
“Last year was the first time that I’ve ever been to the finals of the national championship and not won. It’s only the second time I’ve been there. One time we won, and one time we didn’t. It’s a pretty distasteful feeling. It’s unlike any feeling I’ve had before in the previous 34 years of coaching. I’d like to tell you I’m over it, but I don’t think I ever will be. To be so close and feel the games were winnable and not be able to finish it and be able to bring the big trophy home along with all the things that go with being the national champion, it hurts. I have experienced heartbreaking losses to end the season before. We’ve done that many times. Just about every year you don’t win a national championship, you’re losing a game at the end of the year or two games at the end of the year that are heartbreaking to you. Every year, the next year that we meet here, I get that question, “Do you use that at motivation for the following year?” I’m going to tell you the same answer I tell you every year. The thing you have to guard against is for your players. I can’t control how the fans think or how the media think, but I can control how the players think. If they think that this season starts at the point that last season ended, that’s a very dangerous thing because the journey just to get to the finals is so difficult, so challenging. There are so many ebbs and flows in a season, so many peaks and so many valleys. You have to manage your team daily just to guide them and matriculate them to get through the entire season just to get to that point again. Now if we get to that point again, then we wilI use that ending as motivation. I can very vividly remember when we lost to Stoney Brook. The question was the same, and I said if we get to that point again next year, then it’s something that will motivate us. Low and behold, here we were a year later playing Oklahoma in a super regional. After we beat them in the first game, we are at the exact same point that we were at the year before. I think there was a little bit of extra determination in that second game against Oklahoma to finish the job. Up until that point, we did not talk about what happened that previous year at all. There’s just too many challenges. It’s too difficult along the way to just focus on the ending. I pray to God that we get to that point again this year, and if we do, no one is going to be thinking negatively like oh we were here last year and we lost. We aren’t going to be able to win. It will be a motivation at that point. Until we get to that point, there won’t be much discussion about it.”

On who he expects to step up as a vocal leader …
“That’s a really good question because the group of guys that we do have coming back, albeit, they are outstanding ballplayers, there’s not a lot of vocal leaders there. You take a guy like Antoine Duplantis, who’s about as good of a ballplayer that you could dream of having. I love him. He’s outstanding in every way, dealing with him every day, working with him, his coach-ability. He comes through in clutch situations, but he’s not a very vocal guy. He’s not introverted. He’s not really quiet, he’s just not going to go out of his way. A lot of our guys are that way. Probably the most vocal would be a guy like Hess, but of course, being a starting pitcher, he has to focus on his job. I think the two Jordan boys, sometimes they’re a little bit more vocal, but they don’t do it on a consistent basis. If I have a concern at all about our team it’s who’s going to be Kramer Robertson? Who’s going to be the kind of guys who speak up and take the lead for that to happen? I think as the season goes on, it’s going to kind of run its course. It might even be a new player. It might be a young player. When Alex Bregman was here as a freshman, he was one of the most vocal players on our team. As these players start to have success, I think some of that will emerge as their confidence continues to grow.”

On solidifying the infield …
“I’ve pretty much decided that we are going to start with Slaughter at third, Smith at short, (Brandt) Broussard at second and Bryce Jordan at first. My goal with Hal Hughes is going to be to get him into the game as often and as frequently in different roles as I possibly can. That may mean that if we have a lead late in the game, I can flip Slaughter over to first base and put Hughes at third base and put the best defensive team out there trying to hold a lead at the end. Slaughter is going to play third. He’s going to do a good job at third, and that’s probably where he’s more in tune to play even in his pro career days. He’s a much better first baseman than Bryce Jordan because he’s taller, more athletic. He can jump. He’s got infielder-type skills and those type of things. If we can improve our defense later in the game, I’m going to look for ways to day that. That’s one way I will be able to get Hal into games. I may give him a spot start here and there at second base. There’s different things that I can utilize, but my goal is to get him onto the field as frequently as possible just to get him used to the bright lights and the big crowds, kind of get him comfortable out there so that if we do decide to make a move more later on in the season, it won’t be like we are taking a cold guy off of the bench in the middle of the season and throwing him out when he’s not used to playing. I think that infield is what we should use to start. I chose Broussard over Hal at second base just simply because he has a couple of years on him, a couple of years of junior college ball. Brandt is a very steady defensive player. Believe it or not, he has great range. He may have better range than Cole Freeman, especially on balls to his left. He hit .425 at Delgado last year. Now, I haven’t seen that out of him yet, but he may be one of those guys that when the lights goes on, he’s just being a pest finding a way to get on base all of the time. I wouldn’t be surprised by that at all I’m going to give Brandt the first shot over there. That doesn’t mean he’s going to play every single game at second. I may even start him in one of the games against Notre Dame at second base just to give Hal some time. I think that’s the best way to start out with the infield, and we will see what happens as the season progresses.”

On Daniel Cabrera …
“There’s no question that his future will be at a hitter/outfielder. There’s no doubt about that. He’s an outstanding ball player. He’s got a great athletic body. He’s strong for a freshman. He runs pretty well. He throws well from the outfield. He’s got a beautiful swing. He has to get a little bit more consistent, a little bit more focus to be able to do it consistently. I think he’s really a good-looking ballplayer. I think you can put him in the category with the LeMahieus and the Bregmans and the Antoine Duplantis’ that were ready to play as a freshman when they arrived at LSU. I don’t think he will be intimidated by the atmosphere or anything like that. He’s a confident kid. He had last summer in a collegiate summer league where he excelled. He had a good fall practice. He started off like gangbusters in the fall. I think he hit two to three home runs early. He hit a bit of a dry spell, which honestly was probably a good thing for him to go through in the fall. He was making the game look kind of easy, and we all know he’s not. I just think Daniel has a great temperament. I think he’s ready to help us out of the gate. He will be our starting left field. He also throws 88 off of the mound, throws a lot of strikes, and he’s left-handed with a pretty good change-up. With the inexperienced staff that we have, I think it would be kind of foolish of us not to utilize him to some degree. He may not pitch his whole career at LSU. Maybe next year after we get another recruiting class in and we have another recruiting class of pitchers in and have some guys returning, we may not have a need for him. He’s a very unselfish kid. He’s going to do what we need him to do to help make us the best team. We are going to use him on the mound some, probably out of the bullpen. On the days that I anticipate using him, I’m probably going to DH him or not even have him in the lineup so that he can have the proper time in the bullpen to warm up and that kind of thing. The other thing just to coach you on the rules a little bit, college baseball rules with the DH are a little different than in Major League Baseball. They look at a DH and a pitcher as two separate players. You can start the game as two separate players. You can start the game as a designated hitter, be inserted as a pitcher, be removed as a pitcher and remain in the game as the designated hitter. If I played him in left field and brought him in from left field to pitch and then wanted to remove him as a pitcher, I would either have to put him back in left field to keep him in the game or remove him from the game altogether and lose the designated hitter. There’s some negatives about having to do that. I can’t say that won’t happen on occasion. We may have a need for the best available guy and have to bring him in, but I’m going to try on the days that I’m going to use him or have him available, he’s either going to DH or not have him in the lineup.”

On Nick Storz …
“He had just a slight, slight, slight setback earlier this week. He was playing long catch and kind of had a misstep and kind of strained his lat. Nothing serious. In fact, the soreness has already left, but we had to shut his bullpen down on Tuesday this week. He only threw about six or seven pitches. We thought the prudent thing was to shut him down. He’s been treated. The soreness is all gone. I think he’s going to throw a bullpen today. I don’t know exactly if losing those three days is going to set him back so much that he may not be able to be ready for opening weekend or what. I’m still hopeful. What I would really like him to do is to be able to pitch in an intrasquad scrimmage, at least one before the season began, because I don’t like to create scrimmages once the season begins. At that point, all we would do is simulated games with a pitcher against a hitter. That’s not really the same atmosphere. Since he missed the fall, I’m really hopeful that by that last weekend or that Tuesday before the first game that he will have the opportunity to pitch in an intrasquad scrimmage. If that happens, then he could very well be ready to pitch against Notre Dame out of the bullpen. If that doesn’t happen, then we will have to schedule simulated games and it may delay our using him in a game a little bit longer. I can’t tell you how excited I am about getting this guy on the mound. Wait until you see this guy. That’s what they look like, if you know what I mean. He’s 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, 260 pounds. When you look at him, you probably think he weighs 210 pounds because he’s so athletic. This guy is special. The sooner you get to see what makes him special once that ball leaves his hand, the happier I’ll be.

On the experience of the sophomore class …
“It’s amazingly important. Any time freshmen get to play in the College World Series, and we played seven games out there … We had some very intense super regional games, intense regional games. We won an SEC Tournament. The last weekend we were playing in Starkville we were playing the SEC Western Division and the SEC Championship. Those kids played in a lot of big games down the stretch, and they performed at a very high level. How can that not help you grow by leaps and bounds? Even though they are sophomores, I feel like they are more experienced than even that. The unfortunate thing that you could say for us is three of our sophomores are draft-eligible: Zack Hess, Zach Watson and Jake Slaughter. It’s possible that this may be their last season at LSU. We will have to see how that plays out. There’s no question that they have advanced level of experience based upon the experiences that they had last year.”

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