Having seemingly found four reliable starting pitchers, LSU has — at least for now — found the answer to the team’s biggest question mark entering the season.
The emergence of Austin Bain as a clutch-hitting first baseman has helped solidify the lineup, too, but there’s a question lurking on the horizon: who sits when Josh Smith returns from his back injury?
It certainly won’t be Smith, one of LSU’s best position players. He’ll be starting on the left side of the infield, though at which position hardly seems etched in stone.
“Josh is going to be in the lineup once he’s healthy,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Smith got a positive report from the back specialist on Tuesday. His prescribed four-week period of inactivity ends Monday, and provided he still feels good, the sophomore will then be allowed to start exercising more. He’s done only core work to this point.
Due to the vertebrate issue, Smith has been forbidden from rotating his torso at all during the past four weeks. The plan is for him to start throwing on Tuesday or Wednesday, and if he still feels no pair or restrictions, Smith could start hitting the following week.
Mainieri recently targeted the Mississippi State series (March 29-31) as a potential return date, but said Thursday that it’s more realistic he comes back the following week.
LSU (12-6) be afford to be patient and make sure Smith is 100 percent before bringing him back because the freshman who stepped in for Hughes three games into the season has been solid in his stead.
“We’ve overcome some injuries, and the emergence of Hal Hughes has been a very positive thing for our team,” Mainieri said.
Hughes has only committed three errors in 15 starts at shortstop, which is what LSU expected given his defensive pedigree, but his production at the plate has been a pleasant surprise.
The freshman is hitting .294 in 51 at-bats with a home run, two doubles and 11 RBI, which ranks fifth-most on the team. He’s also a skilled bunter and handles the bat well in hit-and-run situations, which makes for a useful hitter at the bottom of the order.
“He’s had a lot of success for a guy who initially I didn’t think would have a lot of success with the bat,” Mainieri said.
Has Hughes been good enough to stay in the lineup once Smith returns? Definitely, and if he continues to play like he has against SEC competition, it’s hard to see Mainieri putting him on the bench.
It’s possible Hughes and Chris Reid could split time at third base, as Hughes can handle himself defensively at any position on the infield. Don’t be shocked if Hughes stays put and Smith returns to third base, where he played last season.
That’s a problem Mainieri will have to figure out in the weeks ahead, but as the coach is fond of saying, it’s the kind of problem you like to have.
PAUL ON AUGIE
The congratulatory letters flooded into Mainieri’s office after LSU captured the 2009 National Championship, but envelope stood out from the rest.
Why? It was addressed from University of Texas Baseball, the program he’d just defeated in Omaha.
Inside was a handwritten note from legendary Longhorn coach Augie Garrido congratulating Mainieri on his first national championship. Mainieri was so touched by the gesture that he had it framed with a photo of the two taken at Rosenblatt Stadium.
That framed item normally hangs prominently in his home, but Mainieri brought it to the ballpark on Thursday after hearing the sad news that college’s baseball’s winningest coach had passed away from complications of stroke at the age of 79.
“What a tremendous loss for college baseball as a whole,” Mainieri said. “Personally, it affected me quite a bit. When the harsh reality comes true, it makes you reflect a lot on, number one, how short life is for everybody, and also how people come and pass through your life. They make a major impact and then they go on to a better place, and all you have is the memories.”
He continued: “He impacted a lot of lives. Now that he’s passed, you see a lot of tweets from his players what he meant to them and their lives. Honestly, that’s what we all hope for in our coaching profession, leave a legacy of impact on other people and teach them to be successful in life.”
Mainieri shared memories ranging from the first time he coached against the five-time national champion to the back story of that photograph that he had framed along with Garrido’s note.
The coach remembered telling his wife, Karen, that he’d hoped to face Texas if LSU made it through to the 2009 College World Series Finals.
“My wife said to me, ‘Why? Do you think we can beat them?'” Mainieri said. “I just thought the University of Texas and Augie Garrido represented everything great in excellence about college baseball. So if we were going to win my first national championship, it should be against somebody like Augie Garrido.”
Of course that come to fruition. A few days later Mainieri was sitting in the dugout before game two when Garrdio walked past during pre-game warm-ups. He jumped up and asked if Garrido would let the LSU photographer snap a picture of the two of them.
The photo of course is the one framed with the handwritten note Mainieri received a few days later after winning the national championship.
“For him to sit down and write a personal note I thought was cool and as classy a thing as you can do,” Mainieri said. You can see the photo and note below.
Paul Mainieri has this with him as #LSU practices today
Hand-written letter from the late Augie Garrido after the 2009 CWS Finals that he had framed pic.twitter.com/lf8rwjpSgv
— James Moran (@SmartestMoran) March 15, 2018
– Nick Coomes (concussion) hadn’t been cleared to play as of Thursday, and his status is uncertain for this weekend.
– Nick Storz will not be on the 27-player active roster for this weekend. AJ Labas, who threw 74 pitches on Wednesday, isn’t likely to be active, either, but Mainieri hadn’t made a final decision on that yet.
– Saturday starter Caleb Gilbert is good to go after taking that line drive off his push-off foot last Saturday night. He gutted it out for five innings with a large bruise on his foot against Hawaii, and Mainieri declared him “100 percent” after a good week of practice.