Paul Mainieri has told anyone who will listen that Zack Hess will be LSU’s ace this season and take the ball on Friday night.
However, the junior right-hander’s status for Opening Night has been in doubt as he dealt with a minor groin injury.
That’s no longer the case as Hess returned to the mound without incident this week. Mainieri said he threw a pain-free bullpen session on Tuesday and will pitch three innings in an intra-squad scrimmage on Friday night.
“I’m assuming he’ll be feeling fine and he’ll get the start on Friday night against ULM,” the coach said. “But he won’t be out there for an extended period of time.”
Hess will likely be on a strict pitch count heading into the season opener due to the time he’s missed this spring. Five innings would be the absolute maximum, Mainieri estimated.
Even if only for a few innings, it is significant that Hess takes the ball against ULM. LSU was derailed by injuries in 2018, and Mainieri said Hess’ maturation as a staff ace is one of the biggest keys to this upcoming season.
“Definitely looking to get back in some game action on Friday and get as prepared as I can for ULM,” Hess said. “I thought there was a little bit of rust to knock off in my bullpen session, but once I got through like 10 pitches, it started to feel more natural.”
Hess admits it was a bit frustrating to begin his junior season with an injury, but the veteran pitcher is taking the long approach heading into the season.
“It’s better to happen now than in March or April during the season,” Hess said. “It’s just kind of the nature of the beast of what we do. These things are going to happen, and luckily it wasn’t more serious.”
WHO’S ON FIRST?
Nothing is set in stone a week before the season opener, but a leader has emerged from the four-man race to start at first base.
Drew Bianco has been slightly more consistent than Cade Beloso and C.J. Willis up to this point. Gavin Dugas also remains in the mix, though LSU is presently more focused on grooming him as a second baseman.
“It’s still early, but I think Drew Bianco has kind of taken a lead in the race,” Mainieri said. “He’s had a couple big days and hit the ball real hard, but I’m not anointing him as the starting first baseman just yet.”
The coach would not go so far as to say the job is Bianco’s to lose with eight days to go until the opener. Bianco has just been a bit more consistent that his two lefty-swinging compatriots.
“If we were to open the season tonight, he’d be in the lineup,” Mainieri said. “I just think Drew has shown a lot more pizzazz this week and ever so slightly moved ahead of the rest of the group.”
THE VOTES ARE IN
LSU was predicted to finish first in the SEC West by league coaches, the league office announced Thursday. The Tigers were picked to finish second overall behind Vanderbilt.
Outfielders Antoine Duplantis and Daniel Cabrera were also voted Second Team All-SEC by the league coaches.
2019 SEC Baseball Coaches Preseason Poll
- Vanderbilt (9) – 87
- Florida (4) – 81
- Georgia (1) – 68
- South Carolina – 53
- Tennessee – 40
- Kentucky – 30
- Missouri – 26
- LSU (10) – 88
- Ole Miss (1) – 65
- Arkansas (1) – 59
- Auburn (1) – 57
- Texas A&M (1) – 48
- Mississippi State – 47
- Alabama – 21
() – First place votes
SEC Champion: Vanderbilt (6), LSU (5), Florida (2), Arkansas (1)
2019 SEC Baseball Coaches Preseason All-SEC Team
C: Philip Clarke, Vanderbilt
1B: Cole Zabowski, Ole Miss
2B: Austin Martin, Vanderbilt*
2B: Noah Campbell, South Carolina*
3B: Aaron Schunk, Georgia
SS: Casey Martin, Arkansas
OF: Heston Kjerstad, Arkansas
OF: Dominic Fletcher, Arkansas
OF: Jake Mangum, Mississippi State
DH/UTL: T.J. Collett, Kentucky
SP: Tanner Burns, Auburn
SP: Zack Thompson, Kentucky
RP: Matt Cronin, Arkansas
C: Mason Meadows, Georgia
1B: Tanner Allen, Mississippi State
2B: LJ Talley, Georgia
3B: Tyler Keenan, Ole Miss
SS: Braden Shewmake, Texas A&M
OF: JJ Bleday, Vanderbilt
OF: Antoine Duplantis, LSU
OF: Daniel Cabrera, LSU
DH/UTL: Aaron Schunk, Georgia*
DH/UTL: Chase Cockrell, Ole Miss*
SP: John Doxakis, Texas A&M
SP: Tyler Dyson, Florida
RP: Parker Caracci, Ole Miss