When LSU starting pitcher Jaden Hill throws the first pitch Saturday just past 1 p.m. to the Air Force leadoff hitter to open the 2021 season in Alex Box Stadium, there may be a simultaneous rush of air from Hill’s fastball and Paul Mainieri exhaling.
It has been just less than an 11-month journey for the Tigers’ 63-year old head baseball coach since the COVID-19 pandemic ended LSU’s 2020 season last March 12 just before his players were about to board a bus to play their first SEC series of the year at Ole Miss.
Since then, Mainieri has had to deal with an expanded roster thanks to the NCAA allowing all players an extra year of eligibility, survived the weekly suspense of team COVID testing, learned to schedule on the fly and even conducted Zoom media teleconferences from his bedroom.
“I can’t tell you how many times I said `That’s a first for me’,” Mainieri said.
Like this week when the Tigers were set to open their season Friday at 7 p.m. vs. Air Force, then play Notre Dame at 7 p.m. on Saturday and Louisiana Tech at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.
On Monday because of the brutal blast of cold weather that swept across the nation this week and dipped into Louisiana, Mainieri changed the start times to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday and kept the Sunday game at 3:30.
Then on Wednesday because Louisiana Tech athletic director Eric Wood wouldn’t allow the baseball team to travel Thursday because of icy roads, Mainieri pushed opening day from Friday to Saturday, moving first game vs. Air Force to 1 p.m, placing the Sunday game against Notre Dame at 12 noon and switching Louisiana Tech to Monday at 6:30 p.m. The Bulldogs won’t leave Ruston until Saturday.
Finally on Thursday, just before Mainieri hopped a lunch time Zoom call with area media, Notre Dame baseball coach Link Jarrett called Mainieri and said a COVID-19 outbreak on his team was forcing him to cancel the trip to Baton Rouge.
So, the latest 4.0 version of LSU’s schedule has the Tigers and Air Force playing Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 12 noon and Louisiana Tech still slotted for Monday night at 6:30 p.m.
If the weather forecast stays true, Saturday’s opener will be played in sunshine with temperatures in the low 50s, Sunday partly cloudy in the mid 60s and Monday night under clear skies in the mid 50s.
It has been so cold this week with wind chills driving temperatures into the mid 20s, LSU didn’t practice until Thursday.
“I’ve been here 15 years and I can’t remember it being this cold this close to the season,” Mainieri said. “We hadn’t been on the field since last Saturday, and in all honesty I was completely crazy for putting the team out there on Friday and Saturday of last week.
“It was absolutely frigid out there. We played eight-inning scrimmages and I think the temperature wind chill was about 32 degrees.”
Mainieri said he and his team braved them cold because he wanted to give some work to weekend starting pitchers Hill, Landon Marceaux and A.J. Labas.
According to Mainieri, Hill will have a three-inning limit if all goes well on Saturday, Marceaux will be allowed a max of five innings on Sunday and Labas about six innings on Monday.
Also, Mainiei’s starting lineup has just four returning starters from last year’s team—catcher Alex Milazzo, second baseman Cade Doughty, left fielder/designated hitter Cade Beleso and center fielder Giovanni Digiacomo.
Zach Arnold and Drew Bianco will both see action at shortstop, just as Gavin Dugas and Beloso will alternate in left field and as DH.
Three freshmen will start. Right fielder Dylan Crews and first baseman Tre Morgan have been locked into those spots for months, but right-handed pitcher Will Hellmers is the surprise pick at third base.
In accordance with Louisiana’s COVID 19 policy of limiting crowds to 25 percent of the stadium, a max size of 2,500 will be allowed into Alex Box Stadium.
PITCHING MATCHUPS FOR SATURDAY AND SUNDAY
Game 1 Saturday at 1 p.m.
LSU – Jr. RH Jaden Hill (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 11.2 IP, 5 BB, 17 SO, 2 SV)
AF – Jr. LH Stevan Fairburn (0-1, 4.91 ERA, 22.0 IP, 5 BB, 13 SO)
Game 2 Sunday at 12 noon
LSU – Jr. RH Landon Marceaux (2-0, 2.70 ERA, 23.1 IP, 7 BB, 22 SO)
AF – Sr. RH John Byrnes (2-1, 5.91 ERA, 10.2 IP, 4 BB, 8 SO)