LSU assistant baseball coach Eddie Smith said the task of placing as many players from the Tigers program onto competitive summer league teams has evolved into a year-round practice.
When the coronavirus pandemic halted the 2020 college baseball season in mid-March with the 12-5 Tigers set to start SEC play, Smith said the challenge of assigning players to such teams not only became increasing difficult, but grew in importance to compensate for players losing three-fourths of their respective seasons.
“It was unusual,” Smith said. “It’s much like college in that these teams are competitive. They want to win, and they want good players. By September you usually feel good about all of your players being placed. Obviously COVID’s turned everyone’s world upside down.”
The reality of having summer league baseball – largely regarded as an important tool in the growth of players following their college seasons – didn’t gain true clarity until this month once respective states began opening back up after government-mandated shutdowns because of the growing COVID-19 health scare.
Adding to the scheduling chore for Smith and other college coaches was a reduction in summer leagues when the tradition-rich Cape Cod League and Valley League both announced cancellations.
“We had nine players scheduled to go to the Cade Cod and three to the Valley League,” Smith said. “Everyone’s sitting there wondering where they needed to send their guys. It kind of happened on a moment’s notice. We had to relocate three players when the Valley League cancelled. We had to make some adjustments.”
Smith said LSU will be represented by 21 players in summer leagues ranging from Florida to the Midwest and even in Baton Rouge.
The group of Tigers getting the earliest jump on the competition includes the sophomore infield duo of shortstop Collier Cranford (.286 batting average, 2 2Bs, 6 RBIs) and second baseman Cade Doughty (.278, 2 HRs, 12 RBIs) who will play for the Boca Raton Blazers in the South Florida League scheduled to begin June 12.
They will be joined by sophomore catcher Alex Milazzo (.186, 1 HR, 6 RBIs) of the Boynton Beach Buccaneers, junior first baseman Cade Beloso (.313, 1 HR, 12 RBIs) and sophomore infielder Zach Arnold of the West Boca Snappers along with junior outfielder Giovanni DiGiacomo (.351, 2 2Bs, 3B, 5 SBs) of the Florida Pokers in Deerfield Beach.
“We had to keep some things in perspective if it was just going to be a six-week season,” Smith said. “What was closer to home for these players, was is safe for these players, what league is most likely to play? The reality is that some states are opening a lot quicker than others. We felt the South Florida League fit all of those criteria really well and is in a position to likely to be able to play. It was close enough for most of our players.”
LSU will send nine players to the Northwoods League with an expected start date of July 1.
Senior pitcher Devin Fontenot (1-0, 0.90 ERA), a recent third team All-American selection by Collegiate Baseball, will team with junior pitchers A.J. Labas (1-2, 3.55) and Landon Marceaux (2-0, 2.70) and senior catcher Saul Garza (.229, 3 HRs, 12 RBIs) for the Rockford (Ill.) Rivets.
Junior pitchers Jaden Hill (0-0, 0.00 ERA), a third team All-American choice by Collegiate Baseball, and Cole Henry (2-1, 1.89) will play for the Fond du Lac (Wisc.) Spiders, junior outfielder Drew Bianco (.074, 2 RBIs) of the Waterloo (Iowa) Bucks, sophomore outfielder Wes Toups (.222, 2 2Bs, 4 RBIs) and sophomore Hayden Travinski (.059, 1 HR) of the Wisconsin Woodchucks, while senior Zack Mathis (.262. 1 HR, 9 RBIs) is headed to the Duluth (Minn.) Huskies.
“We were fortunate, we had coaches in the Northwoods and Prospect League willing to take in our guys,” Smith said. “These teams already had full rosters and then COVID hit and these teams were being asked to take on more players. I know every school in the country was scratching, clawing, and begging to make that happen.
“I think it also shows the power of LSU. People were willing to take our players at this time where there were roster crunches, they would do anything they could to get LSU players on their rosters.”
The Elkville, Ill.-based Prospect League will have junior pitcher Ma’khail Hilliard (1-0, 0.00), sophomore pitcher Jacob Hasty (0-0. 0.00) and sophomore outfielder Mitchell Sanford (.250, 2 RBIs) headed to the Danville (Ill.) Dans.
Senior catcher Braden Doughty and junior infielder/outfielder Gavin Dugas (.286, 3 HRs, 5 RBIs) will play for the Baton Rouge Rougarou of the Texas Collegiate League.
“We place players in these summer leagues every year because that work’s always important,” Smith said. “This year it’s more important than ever because we only played a quarter of our season. It’s like a guy who comes in and maybe gets hurt and only gets to play in 20 games. That summer becomes important for him because it essentially becomes his season for development and getting better as a player and now every player’s in that position.
“The summer’s going to be extra critical. You see every year where someone goes out after their freshman year and they come back in the fall as a different player, they carry themselves differently. It’s just that aura of confidence. I think this year will be the same story where these summer leagues may be more important than ever for those players to get that kind of feeling of resurged confidence in themselves.”