LSU had a pretty good run of success the past two years with a double-play tandem of a well-known coach’s son and an undersized scrapper from Delgado Community College.
Nobody is asking them to be Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman from day one, but two infielders arrived on campus this fall that fit the general description to a tee.
Brandt Broussard and Hal Hughes are the two new faces in LSU’s infield this season. No roles are ever set in stone — recall Robertson began the 2016 season playing second base with Freeman at third — but they’ll be counted on to be the glue as LSU shuffles returners Josh Smith, Jake Slaughter and Bryce Jordan to new positions.
Broussard, the beneficiary of two strong seasons at Delgado, will likely get the nod at second base to begin the season. Hughes, a slick-fielding freshman, will begin the year as LSU’s utility man and a late-game defensive replacement with the chance to take on a larger role as time goes on.
“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,” Mainieri says about his subject-to-change starting lineup. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to play every single game at second. Hal is going to get 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.”
How these two newcomers settle in figures to be one of the under-the-radar keys to LSU’s season. Everyone knows how much pitching and power the Tigers have to replace from last season’s club, but Mainieri is always fanatical when it comes to infield defense, one of the core strengths of the 2017 team.
The dependability of Broussard and the defensive versatility Hughes present Mainieri with a wealth of options. It gives him the freedom to make changes if Smith or Slaughter struggle at their new positions, or move Slaughter back to first base to add more height and athleticism at the position.
Neither Broussard nor Hughes may realize it yet, but they both grew up in the sport of baseball preparing for these exact roles.
BURKE BROUSSARD HAD almost given up on the idea of his son following in his footsteps at LSU. He was the second baseman on LSU’s first College World Series club in 1986, and Brandt grew up in Baton Rouge dreaming of being a Tiger, but the clock was ticking.
Summer was approaching and it was time for Brandt to make a decision on where he’d continue his baseball career and pursue a degree in chemical engineering — he’s a 4.0 student in addition to a ballplayer.
Most of his offers were from Southland Conference schools, but Burke, the former U-High baseball coach, knows that baseball recruiting becomes a numbers game around the MLB Draft.
You never know who’ll sign professionally, and Burke advised Brandt to hold out a little longer and see what shook loose. Then the opportunity he’d worked a lifetime toward came calling.
“I had no idea they were even seriously looking at me,” Brandt says. “It wasn’t a plan of mine or anything like that. I was pretty surprised. Like a seven or eight out of 10.”
Recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain asked if the family could into the baseball offices the day before LSU departed for the College World Series. The Tigers had just lost JUCO infielder Andrew Bechtold to the Minnesota Twins as a fifth-round pick, and Cain offered Broussard the spot.
“It was a no-brainier once he found out he had a spot,” Burke says. “It’s surreal, to be honest with you. Every dad wishes sometimes that his son would follow in his footsteps, and I’m just so grateful that he’s even had a chance to play college baseball. Watching him grind these last few years to fulfill his dream to play at LSU, it’s satisfying.”
Broussard is following more directly in the footsteps of Freeman, who preceded him at both Delgado and LSU. He’s not quite the same game-wrecker on the basepaths, but he hit .429 and committed only six errors last season.
That skill with the bat didn’t translate into results during the fall practice season, but that could be a product of getting acclimated to Southeastern Conference-caliber pitching. Freeman was the same way his first fall on and wound up hitting .321 in two seasons at LSU.
“I’m hoping Brandt is going to show a bit more consistency with the bat like he did at Delgado,” Mainieri says. “I’m hoping he follows the previous Delgado second baseman in a lot of that kind of stuff.”
PETE HUGHES RAISED his five children around the baseball diamond, but none of them took to the game quite like Hal.
“A baseball rat,” Pete says. “He’s been in my dugout since he was five years old.”
Pete owns 21 years of experience as a college head baseball coach that includes stops at Oklahoma (2014-17), Virginia Tech (2007-13) and Boston College (1999-06). Wherever he went, Hal was either by his side in the dugout of taking ground balls on a field somewhere nearby.
Generally speaking, there’s two kinds of coach’s sons in baseball. There’s the entitled kid who hits second and plays shortstop in little league because their dad is the coach. Then there’s the kind that immerse themselves in the game from an early age and work like there’s no tomorrow.
By all accounts Hal fits into the latter, working his way into a silky-smooth infielder by sheer force of will. He takes ground balls at shortstop, second and third base every day, and Pete remembers having to turn the lights off at the field just to get Hal to call it a night as a kid.
“He’s learned from me to respect the daily preparation,” Pete says. “There’s only one way to be great at this sport, especially defense, and it’s high volume. The only way to get high volume is to work your butt off every day taking ground balls. He’s always been this way. I could never get him off the field. No shortcuts to being a great defender.”
Mainieri and Pete are actually long-time friends going back to their respective tenures at Notre Dame and Boston College. Mainieri put in calls to endorse Pete when he interviewed for the Virginia Tech and Oklahoma jobs.
Pete tried to get Mainieri to recruit Hal years ago, but the LSU coach was hesitant because coaching the child of a close friend can get a bit messy.
It’s the kind of situation that can end a friendship if the coach and parent don’t see eye to eye, but Pete persisted, insisting he understood how to view his son’s baseball career through the lens of a coach more than a parent.
“I’m a little different than most parents,” he says. “No wishful thinking. I’m pretty good about that, and I have to be. I’ve got five of them, so if I couldn’t I’d be way out of whack.”
Hal came to LSU for a baseball camp and Mainieri saw the outstanding defensive tools — soft hands, great range and a strong, accurate throwing arm — that his friend had been telling him about for years.
“We needed an infielder,” Mainieri says, “and I didn’t want to hold it against the boy that he’s the son of a good friend of mine.”
It’s a good thing he did, too.
The departure of Rankin Woley left LSU with just Hughes and veteran Chris Reid as reserve infielders behind Smith, Slaughter and Broussard. Pitcher Austin Bain played some second base in the fall just so LSU could fill out two lineups for intra-squad scrimmages.
Hughes could end up a starting infielder by season’s end — there always seems to be one freshman that Mainieri starts on the bench but has bigger plans for down the road — but his defensive skillset is tailor made for utility work. He still begins every practice by taking ground balls at all three infield positions.
“I’m just trying to contribute in any way possible to help this team win,” Hughes says. “Whatever it may be, I’ll be ready for it.”
OKLAHOMA AND PETE Hughes parted ways after the 2017 season despite Hughes leading the Sooners to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his four-year tenure. He’s since caught on at Georgia as an assistant coach for this season.
The SEC didn’t do Pete any favors as far as staggering Thursday-Saturday and Friday-Sunday series on LSU and Georgia’s scheduled, but Pete has already circled three dates that he can watch Hal play in person for the low, low price of an overnight drive from Athens.
He’ll watch any other televised or streamed game that he can, whether it be live or on tape delay, and was in town for the Purple and Gold World Series in the spring. There’s a bitter sweetness for Pete that Hal isn’t playing for him, but he couldn’t be happier with the way things have worked out.
“Paul is a great friend and somebody I trust,” Pete says. “There’s no greater compliment than sending your son to play for somebody. You’re handing him over for four years. His everyday life has just gone from my wife and me to Paul’s hands and we feel great about that. Couldn’t have designed it a better way. He’s playing for the best coach in college baseball and one of the best guys in college baseball.”
As for Burke Broussard, he’ll be around to catch a lot of Brandt’s games. He retired as U-High baseball coach in 2014 and still lives in Baton Rouge.
And while he does his best to separate being a dad from being a coach, he understands full well that Opening Night could be a bit overwhelming for him.
“I hope I can hold it in check,” Burke chuckles, “but if I see him run out there in the starting lineup, I’m probably going to shed a little tear like any dad would. I’m just so proud. It’s been a tough road, but he’s worked so hard for this opportunity and I think he’s going to make the most of it.”