Nick Webre has seen what Alex Box Stadium can do when the place gets rocking.
The Lafayette native has attended more LSU baseball games than he can count dating back to his childhood. He’s even taken in three or four Opening Day extravaganzas, the first one when he was just 10 years old.
He remembers making the drive from Acadiana two years ago with some high school buddies to watch fellow Lafayette native Antoine Duplantis make his debut as a Tiger. Still, as many games as Webre attended as a fan and LSU commitment, as familiar as he may be with the raucous atmosphere, this next one is going to be different.
“I grew up in those seats,” Webre said. “I grew up watching these games. To actually be on this field is going to be amazing.”
Not just standing on the field for the National Anthem, either. His days of watching are over.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri named Webre LSU’s “everyday first baseman” for the immediate future on Wednesday and announced the freshman will be batting second when the Tigers begin the 2018 season against Notre Dame on Friday at 7 p.m.
Webre might not be in the opening night lineup were it not for Hunter Feduccia’s broken hand, which precipitated Mainieri moving Bryce Jordan from first base to catcher, but the coach had been grooming him for a starting role all spring. The injury just opened up a convenient landing spot.
Why the hurry to get this particular rookie in the lineup as soon as possible? It goes back to an age-old baseball adage: hit enough and the coach will find a position for you to play.
“I’m really excited about him,” LSU hitting coach Sean Ochinko said. “I think he’s a special hitter and he’s got really good power. Not just pull power, he’s got power to all fields. He hits lefties well. He hits righties well. He’s earned it.”
It certainly wasn’t given to him.
Webre arrived at LSU as something of an afterthought in the outfield compared to Baton Rouge native Daniel Cabrera, the starting left fielder, but the way he’s swung the bat has gotten everyone’s attention.
The sweet-swinging lefty led LSU in hitting (.344), hits (11) and doubles (5) through 11 spring scrimmages and tied for the team lead in home runs (2) and runs batted in (7).
“Every day you’ve got to come out and act like you have a chance to make an impact,” Webre said. “I never took being out here for granted and I always worked hard. Whether or not I was going to be in the lineup didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to get better.”
His track record suggests the torrid preseason is not a fluky hot streak, either. Webre was named Louisiana Player of the Year in 2016 and led Teurlings Catholic to a state championship during his senior season.
He then put up monster numbers in Prospect League — a collegiate summer league — fresh out of high school, hitting .324 with nine homers and 40 RBI, and hasn’t slowed down since arriving in Baton Rouge.
“The kid has done nothing but hit everywhere he’s been,” Ochinko said. “We think he’s a guy that has got to be in the lineup and he’s a difference maker.”
All it takes is one batting practice session to see how much raw power Webre can supply. He’s inherited Greg Deichmann’s mantle as the most must-see BP on the team, effortlessly depositing long drives into the right-field seats in front of The Intimidator.
But unlike Deichmann, who took a collegiate season and a half to learn how to embrace hitting the ball to all fields, coaches already rave about Webre’s advanced approach at the plate. They expressed no concern about how he’ll handle the two soft-tossing southpaws Notre Dame will start on the mound this weekend.
Webre deflects a lot of the credit to his first-year hitting coach for helping him quickly adjust to facing Division I pitching. Oddly enough, Webre was wearing Ochinko’s No. 12 jersey before the former Tiger rejoined the coaching staff in January. He’s now No. 23.
Ochinko has stayed on him about driving outside fastballs the opposite way as pitchers inevitably stay away from the low-and-inside sweet spot that most lefty sluggers adore.
Here’s some proof: Ochinko proudly recounts a scrimmage at-bat against Zack Hess in which Webre crushed a 95 mph fastball on the outside corner off the back wall of the left field bleachers.
“He has a lot of power, but it’s really impressive to see him go the other way,” Duplantis said. “A lot of power guys like to just pull the ball, but he hits it to all fields really hard.”
Defense remains a bit of a work in the progress as Webre feels out his way around first base, but he’s given constant pointers about footwork around the bag and picking short hops by Ochinko and Jake Slaughter, who manned the position last year. Slaughter could also end up his late-game defensive caddie when LSU has a lead to protect.
Webre got additional guidance Thursday from Matt Clark, a former Tiger great who made the Major Leagues, when the hulking first baseman stopped by the Box to take in practice.
How well that facet of Webre’s game matures could determine where he ends up playing once Feduccia’s hand feels well enough to catch, but just like the adage says, if he hits, Mainieri and Co. will have no choice but to find somewhere in the lineup for his bat.