NEW ORLEANS — Amid a fall ravaged by injuries, LSU coach Paul Mainieri has just happy to have one of his marquee players returning to the lineup instead of leaving it.
Josh Smith played shortstop and batted second as LSU completed its home-and-home exhibition series with UNO at Maestri Field on Friday night. The junior went 1-for-3, reached base three times and played a clean game defensively.
LSU and UNO tied 3-3, for those wondering, but the result itself is rather immaterial compared to the lift of getting Smith back out at shortstop.
“It was great to have Josh back out there,” Mainieri said. “He made some plays out there at shortstop. Obviously I let him play the whole nine innings. That was the plan. He needed it because it had been a while.”
Smith missed all of last season with a back injury. A bruised shoulder relegated to the designated hitter spot when the two teams played a 14-inning exhibition game at Alex Box Stadium two weeks ago, but he was cleared to resume throwing last week.
Overall it’s been a strong fall for Smith, who Mainieri calls the most-critical factor heading into the 2019 season.
“Definitely feels good to get back throwing again,” Smith said. “Everything was good. Happy to get back on the field with the guys.”
Freshman right-hander Jaden Hill started and looked far more impressive than he did against this same UNO lineup two weeks ago.
Hill allowed two earned runs on three hits in three innings, but his stuff appeared much crisper. His breaking ball was sharp and he even mixed in a changeup that played well off his fastball. The rookie struck out four and only walked one batter.
“The first inning, they hit a couple of good pitches off him, but then he settled in,” Mainieri said. “The last two innings I thought he was tremendous.”
Fellow freshman Riggs Threadgill followed Hill and fired three innings of scoreless relief. He allowed just one hit, which was erased on a double play, and struck out the side in the fifth inning. He struck out four and allowed just two singles.
Threadgill has been a bright spot as other freshmen have dealt with an array of injuries. The Texas native works off a fastball with movement and throws strikes. He’ll have a chance to earn a role this spring.
“I thought he was really, really good,” Mainieri said. “Riggs has pitched well for us all fall. I’m pumped about him.”
Mainieri and Co. held their collective breath for a few moments when catcher Brock Mathis got hit in the head by a pitch in the second inning.
Trainer Cory Couture and Mainieri rushed out to check on Mathis, who appeared fine after jogging down to first base. He remained in the game and scored from first base on a Drew Bianco double, so consider it a bullet dodged.
Not only did Mathis remain in the game, but he played well. He went hitless at the plate but threw out two would-be base stealers — one by such a margin that the runner just gave up a few feet from second base.
“The two games he’s played against these guys have been really outstanding,” Mainieri said. “He blocked a lot of balls in the dirt and even threw guys out off blocks. If the wind wasn’t howling in like it was, he might’ve been the hero of the game with that ball he hit to left. He crushed that ball, but it didn’t go anywhere.”
Mathis is effectively the last scholarship catcher standing for LSU. Saul Garza underwent knee surgery earlier this month that’ll keep him out until the spring. CJ Willis can’t throw until the spring due to a high school shoulder injury.
P&G SERIES SHORTENED
LSU will play only one game instead the customary three when it holds its annual Purple and Gold World Series next week.
That news comes as LSU has dealt with a rash of injuries to its pitching staff this fall, making a three-scrimmage exhibition untenable. Injuries aside, LSU shut down a number of key arms like Zack Hess, Eric Walker and Landon Marceaux as a precaution.
Just how counterproductive have those injuries and a rainy fall been for LSU?
According to Mainieri, position players typically get around 75 at-bats in a fall practice period. This fall, most players have taken around 25 at-bats with only a week to go.