LSU’s twice-delayed fall baseball workouts will yield two unusual developments when the Tigers stage their annual Purple-Gold three-game World Series Wednesday through Friday at 6:30 each night.
Cooler-than-usual temperatures amid a backdrop of an empty Alex Box Stadium because none of the games (all seven innings each) will be played with fans who won’t be admitted because of coronavirus concerns.
LSU veteran head coach Paul Mainieri is eager to see his team compete with the end results expected to go a long way in shaping the starting lineup and pitching staff of the 2021 team.
“I think we have a chance to have a good, solid lineup with an outstanding pitching staff that can lead to championship-caliber baseball,” Mainieri said Tuesday in a Zoom media teleconference.
LSU officially began fall drills Sept. 30 or more than two weeks later than scheduled as they navigated its way in a COVID-19 world. Players either tested positive for the coronavirus or experienced contact tracing which required being quarantined.
Mainieri reported since the opening of workouts no players have subsequently tested positive or had to be placed in quarantine or isolation.
“We’ve gotten so much good work done,” Mainieri said. “I’m thrilled we were able to have a fall practice and knock on wood that we’re able to get through these next three days unscathed. We found out a lot about our team. We found out that we have some outstanding new players in our program to complement the returning players that we do have.”
Mainieri could barely contain his excitement at the prospect of watching the potential impact his most recent recruiting class will have.
As many as three true freshmen – first baseman Trey Morgan, right fielder Dylan Crews and third baseman Will Safford – would be starters if LSU began its season immediately, Mainieri said.
Two others – right fielder/designated hitter Brody Drost and shortstop Dylan Thompson – have positioned themselves in the mix for playing time behind Crews and Zach Arnold respectively.
“It’s seems crazy that an established program like LSU could play that many freshmen, but that’s how talented these guys are,” Mainieri said.
Mainieri commended Crews’ prowess, which recently included a majestic home run in scrimmage action in the vicinity of 450-plus feet halfway up the video board in left field.
“He’s made it very clear that he should be an everyday player for us,” he said.
Morgan, a graduate of Brother Martin, has progressed at such a rate this fall Mainieri said he has moved returning first baseman Cade Beloso to left field.
The impact of his defense made Morgan a natural candidate for time at first base. But it’s been his ability to hit and run that further cemented Mainieri’s decision to shift Beloso to the outfield and get Morgan in the lineup.
“In your coaching career you come across kids that has something that stands out about them,” Mainieri said of Morgan. “I bet in my roughly 40 years of coaching I’ve probably had three or four first basemen that have stood out because they’re so good defensively at first base. This kid is going to impact the game in a big way with his defense.
“He might hit three-hole. He’s as tough an out on the team and he’s hit the best pitchers. He hits with two strikes; he hits in the clutch and he’s a good base runner. I don’t see anything that he can’t do. He looks like a future major leaguer.”
Safford, who Mainieri compared to a left-handed hitting Tyler Hanover, was a standout shortstop at University High before getting to LSU where he played center field. He was then moved to shortstop to create a four-player logjam until being moved to third base where he’s projected to start ahead of Collier Cranford, last year’s starting shortstop.
“He loves the game,” Mainieri said of Safford. “The ultimate hustler, plays the game 100 miles an hour, plays with his hair on fire. If we started the season tomorrow, he’d be in there.”
For the first time in his career Mainieri took a different approach to dividing his team into two squads with an eye toward trying to creating competition and building additional depth.
The Gold team will feature what Mainieri described as his projected starters, a lineup that will face the makeup of a pitching staff for the Purple of projected weekend starters – Jaden Hill, Landon Marceaux and A.J. Labas – along with bullpen veterans that includes Devin Fontenot, Matthew Beck and Ma’Khail Hilliard.
Next to the play of Morgan, Mainieri said he’s been equally impressed with the efforts of Marceaux and Labas who in his words, “have competed this fall in a way they all look like Friday night starters. In fact, they’ve probably outpitched Jaden up to this point.”
Position players for the Purple are comprised of players that are in reserve roles such as returning lettermen as Cranford, left fielder Gavin Dugas, second baseman Drew Bianco and center fielder Mitchell Sanford.
They will be opposed by a Gold pitching staff of predominately first-year players with a trio of freshmen – Garrett Edwards, Ty Floyd and Will Hellmers – scheduled to start in that order during the series.
Returning starters Cade Doughty will lead off and play second base for the Gold, while Giovanni DiGiacomo will start in center field and Alex Milazzo, who has fully recovered from off-season elbow surgery, will catch.
“I think it will be a great matchup,” Mainieri said. “We’ll see if great pitching beats great hitting or if this will be the time where great hitting beats good pitching. Either way I’m not going to panic, I’m going to be excited about whatever happens.”