LSU sophomore shortstop Collier Cranford is headed to the South Florida League two weeks ahead of his summer playing assignment where he’ll be a member of the Boca Raton Blazers.
The league for college baseball players with remaining eligibility begins June 12. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, players from outside the state of Florida must report where they’ll be quarantined and tested for COVID-19.
“I’m just excited that we’re going to get to play,” said Cranford, who batted .286 and didn’t commit an error in his abbreviated first season at LSU. “I can’t wait to get there and play.”
Cranford is one of six Tigers’ set to take part in the league. He’ll be joined on the Blazers by fellow sophomore second baseman Cade Doughty. Sophomore catcher Alex Milazzo (Boynton Beach Buccaneers), junior first baseman Cade Beloso and sophomore infielder Zach Arnold (both with the West Boca Snappers) and junior outfielder Giovanni DiGiacomo (Florida Pokers) are also participating in the league.
Instead of possibly being in Omaha for the start of the College World Series which was scheduled to run from June 13-24, Cranford and LSU’s contingent of players will find themselves in a competitive atmosphere for the first time since March 11 when the Tigers took a 4-1 victory over South Alabama.
A day later, LSU’s opening SEC series at Ole Miss was cancelled. It was followed by the NCAA’s postponement of its World Series, thus bringing to a halt the rest of the season after only 17 games in which the Tigers had a 12-5 record.
“I’m not sure yet,” Cranford said of his feelings of playing in competitive game after such a long layoff. “We’re all doing our best to stay in the best shape possible.”
Cranford said he worked out at a local gym where he’s also been able to take batting practice and field ground balls.
Of course, he realizes the difference between taking batting practice and facing live pitching for the first time in three months.
“I’ve done everything I can to stay sharp,” he said. “I was waking up and eating and then going to work out. Now, I’ve finished (on-line) classes, took finals and look forward to playing again.”
Collier has experience when it comes to coping with the loss of part or the great majority of a baseball season.
The former Zachary High standout, who was a two-time first team All-District 4-5A selection and three-year letter winner, was listed as the nation’s No. 256 prospect nationally by Prep Baseball Report when his senior season came crashing down.
Cranford said he suffered an arm injury while closing out a game on the mound during the early stages of his final year. After having played 13 straight innings at shortstop during a doubleheader, Cranford was brought in to finish the final inning. He felt a ‘pop’ in his arm on the next-to-last pitch of his outing which he finished with a strikeout.
“The next day I DH’d and didn’t play defense,” he said. “The next week I got an MRI and got the results.”
Cranford, who had signed the previous November with LSU, was slated for Tommy John surgery. It’s a procedure Dr. Frank Jobe first performed in 1974 on the former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament inside the elbow.
“I remember going with my parents to talk to (LSU head) coach (Paul) Mainieri and (LSU assistant) coach (Nolan) Cain,” Cranford said. “They assured me they were still going to be there and not give up on me. They said I could do my rehab with the training staff during the summer. They were really encouraging.
“I was obviously torn apart by not being able to play my senior season and to play with some guys that I had grown up with. I tried to take everything a day at a time. It gets to a point where you have to move on and do what you can to get better.”
A year after batting .394 as a junior with 32 runs scored, five doubles, five homers and 18 stolen bases, Cranford found himself with much different role than he could ever imagined for his senior year. He cheered and encouraged his teammates while still being able to grow.
“I tried to go to the field and help my younger teammates,” he said. “It helped me see the game through a new lens, stuff that you may not necessarily see when you’re playing. It helped me learn the game even better.”
Cranford attended summer school at LSU and worked with the baseball team’s strength coach Travis Roy to set a course of getting back on the field in the fall.
He participated in the Tigers’ fall scrimmages where he was able to get reacquainted to seeing live pitching again. He also took ground balls, but out of precaution never threw a ball the entire fall.
“The throwing part was taken out,” Cranford said. “I feel like my arm was a big part of my game defensively and not being able to show that was tough and frustrating. I didn’t feel like myself.”
Cranford said he decided to test out his right arm during the Christmas break, making the same routine throw to first base he’d made countless times before.
When he returned to campus in January to begin workouts for the upcoming season, Cranford continued to build his arm strength and confidence. He extended his throws from second base where he worked in the fall, to shortstop during preseason practice where he battled Hal Hughes for the team’s starting position.
“My throws were a little wild at first and with repetition I found myself,” he said. “Defensively, I was happy to be back to where I was. Offensively, it was just an adjustment. Being thrown into that spot and playing in front of more people that I’ve ever played in front of in my life, and seeing the pitching I was seeing, I think it was in my head a little bit.”
Cranford played sparingly over the course of LSU’s first six games. He cracked the Tigers’ starting lineup at shortstop in the second game of a three-game series with Eastern Kentucky on Feb. 22.
Two games later in a 7-1 home win over Louisiana Tech, Cranford collected his first career hit and remained a constant in the team’s starting lineup over the last 11 games.
Not only had Cranford established impeccable credentials at shortstop with no errors in 40 total chances, the offensive part of his game came to life.
Cranford hit .538 over his last seven games with five RBIs, five runs scored and a pair of doubles, a clear indication of his all-around potential when the rest of the season was cancelled.
“I started seeing that success and gained confidence,” Cranford said. “During those games I started to turn it on and felt great. A big part was being able to show up to the ballpark and knowing that I was playing that day.
“Growing up as a kid in Louisiana and playing baseball, LSU’s the dream and being able to live out my dream is something I couldn’t ask for any better.”