Simply penciling Josh Smith’s name into a starting lineup again was enough to get a smile out of LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
But seeing the junior play like the offensive difference maker that LSU so desperately missed last season? That will probably go down as the highlight of a rain- and injury-laden fall.
Smith went a perfect 4-for-4 with a two-run homer as LSU wrapped up the fall with its annual Purple and Gold World Series on Friday night. Smith also smoked a double into the right-center field gap, scored three runs and stole four bases in the eight-inning scrimmage.
“Josh looks so good,” Mainieri said. “He looked like a really good prospect tonight, for the MLB Draft and also for our team this year. Imagine if we would have had him all year last year and he would have played like that. It would have made a huge difference with our team.
“When one guy goes down, you can take the next-man-up attitude, but the truth of the matter is when your best players go down, it’s going to have an effect on your team. It was great to see Josh back out there playing great.”
LSU’s starting shortstop missed almost all of last season with a back injury. He began the fall healthy only to miss time with a bruised shoulder after he dove for a pop-up during practice last month.
Smith was relegated to a designated hitter in LSU’s first exhibition game against UNO. He returned to the field in New Orleans but struggled a bit at the plate in the back half of the home-and-home series.
The health of Smith is one of the key factors for LSU’s 2019 season, and scrimmage or not, it was uplifting for all involved to see Smith play like the Freshman All-American that was so pivotal to the 2017 College World Series run.
“This is my first day having a game like this since the back injury, and I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t a great day,” Smith said. “It’s a great way to end the fall. Having a game like that gives me some confidence. After UNO I wasn’t really feeling that well with my swing. (Hitting coach) Sean (Ochinko) and I worked on some things with my swing, and it helped me out a little bit.”
Move over Derek Jeter. LSU has its own Mr. November.
With the game tied in the bottom of the eighth and final inning, freshman outfielder Giovani DiGiacomo belted a walk-off home run to lift the gold team to an 8-7 victory and avoid extra innings.
LSU shortened its version of the fall classic from three games to one due to an inordinate amount of injured pitchers, but the stakes — no pun intended — are the same as every year: the winning team eats steak while the losers get hot dogs.
“I’m not that kind of guy, so that really surprised the crap out of me,” DiGiacomo said. “I’ve been working with my swing all fall and trying to hit more with my legs, and one of the things Coach always preaches is hitting in the clutch.”
What the speedy outfielder means by surprised is that he doesn’t profile as a power hitter. He’s been working this fall on simply putting the ball in play, but with the game on the line, he sat on a first-pitch fastball and put a charge into it.
“He’s got some pop, I know he does,” Mainieri said. “He’s just a little inconsistent right now, but you can see the potential is oozing out of him. He’s a great athlete. He’s got a super athletic body. He’s a good outfielder. He can run, and he’s got some occasional pop like that. He’s not capable of doing that all the time, but what he is capable of being is a really good line drive hitter who can steal bases.
“We’re going to get him into the games as much as we can, and he’s going to have a really good future at LSU.”
STARS IN ATTENDANCE
The Purple and Gold World Series is always a time when former Tigers return to Alex Box Stadium, both as spectators and as coaches for the respective teams.
Here’s an incomplete list of the former players in attendance:
– Aaron and Austin Nola (according to Mainieri)
– Alex Bregman (according to Mainieri)
– Kevin Gausman
– Alex Lange
– Anthony Ranaudo
– Chris Chinea
– Kade Scivicque
– Mike Papierski
– Austin Bain
It’s been a fall practice period riddled with rain outs and injuries, but Mainieri preached confidence in his team as it wrapped up the fall with an eye toward spring.
“It was a really good way to end fall practice. I’m as confident today as I was at the summer press conference about the quality of our team. The key is going to be to get the pitchers healthy and to pitch at a really high level, because I think our lineup and position players are going to be really strong. There’s a couple areas that I’m still a little bit concerned about, but overall I think we’re going to have a really strong team.”