Scooter Hobbs column: It takes more than talent to get to Omaha
Published 11:00 am Friday, February 17, 2023
Having the best college baseball team in the country — which I have it on good authority that LSU does this season — is no guarantee that you’ll win a national championship or even reach the College World Series.
Just ask Tennessee last year. No one could seriously dispute that the Vols were the best in the land.
One bad weekend, however, is all it takes — Rocky Top didn’t even make it to Omaha.
Email newsletter signup
Ole Miss won the national championship — and the Rebels were fortunate to even be in the NCAA Tournament.
So guess who got the last laugh?
But, if your goal is to win the national championship — as LSU’s plan is every year — then having the best team in the country is as good a place as anywhere to start.
Or so I’m told.
That’s pretty much where LSU begins the season today at Alex Box Stadium, a tad early, as it were, with the game against Western Michigan being moved up to 3 p.m. to avoid some chillier night temperatures.
To hear LSU fans tell it, today should be the first of 56 consecutive wins in the regular season, followed by the formality of 10 more postseason wins to sweep into and through Omaha.
A little over the top there, perhaps.
You’re talking about a proud program, for sure, but also one that has won only one national championship since 2000, none since 2009, and hasn’t been to Omaha since 2017.
Since LSU’s last title, five SEC schools have won seven national championships.
But the Tigers did not become the consensus preseason pick by a random drawing.
There’s something to it.
It’s a team with some questions to be answered.
But the answers, even if unknown at the moment, are there. There’s a difference between question marks and having multiple options.
When you have the kind of depth and talent LSU has assembled in Jay Johnson’s second season, it will work itself out. It’s not a matter of if or even when the questions get answered, only a matter of how.
“The returning players know what to expect,” Johnson said. “They’ve established really good leadership, really good patterns of how we want to roll, so to speak.
“Then when you’re adding talented players, then the challenge is always ‘becoming a team.’”
With the embarrassing wealth of depth Johnson has added, the season may go beyond the constant tinkering that former coach Paul Mainieri was so adept at.
Johnson’s predecessor was normally figuring out his best lineup for the season.
Johnson may have a bigger luxury. He has too much talent to keep most of them on the bench all season.
At least four everyday spots are a five-o’clock traffic jams right now — catcher, second base, right field, maybe even the catch-all position of DH.
All of those positions have proven players, but also players with differing skill sets who can contribute. Who plays — day to day — might depend on who pitches for the opponent.
Oh, the dilemma … even if it’s a nice problem for Johnson to have.
“We’re not trying things out, we’re doing things in the context of winning that day,” Johnson said. “There’s more than nine good position players and there’s more than three good pitchers.
“Guys are going to be put in spots.”
The weekend starting pitching rotation might sum up this team. And it’s hardly chiseled in stone yet.
But as of now it amounts to a Friday ace transfer (Paul Skenes), a veteran (Riley Cooper) and an incoming freshman (Chase Shores) who could have been a high draft pick last summer.
Not to worry. There’s plenty more where those came from.
Pitching, specifically starting pitching, is basically what LSU ran out of last year. That won’t be a problem this year.
It would appear the only thing that could stop this LSU team is the fickleness of baseball. It doesn’t always play fair. The best team doesn’t always win.
But if LSU is left searching for excuses, lack of talent won’t be a suspect.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
PROJECTED LSU LINEUP
CF Dylan Crews 6-1/196 Jr. Baton Rouge (Parkview HS)
Your basic five-tool player who’s a good possibility to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s amateur draft. Consensus first-team all-American last year and co-SEC Player of the Year. Hit .349 with 22 HRs, 72 RBIs and 73 runs scored.
RF Paxton Kling 6-2/205 Fr. Roaring Springs, Pa.
Highly touted out of high school, ranked No. 6 overall by Perfect Game. Played on 2021 USA National 18-under team. Was considered an early round pick in last year’s draft before pulling his name out. Hit .585 as a senior.
LF Josh Pearson 5-10/190 So. West Monroe
Host of candidates to end up with this job, but Pearson was impressive as freshman, starting 35 games and batting .299 with 8 HRs and 35 RBIs. Head coach Jay Johnson may well start several here according to the pitching matchup.
1B Tré Morgan 6-1/215 Jr. New Orleans
Classic spray hitter who is also arguably the nation’s best defensive 1B. Despite playing through a knee injury the last month of the season, second-team all-SEC while hitting .357. Also made all-SEC defensive team.
2B Gavin Dugas 5-10/205 Gr. Houma
Fifth-year player who battled thumb injury last year will have a fight to keep his job among tight competition from Jack Merrifield and Ben Nippolt. Barbe High freshman Gavin Guidry could also get a look at the position. Dugas hit .306 last year.
SS Jordan Thompson 6-1/185 Jr. Chula Vista, Calif.
Often struggled defensively last year, but brings a clutch bat to the position. Head coach Jay Johnson has called him best shortstop in college baseball.
3B Tommy White 6-0/236 So.-Tr. St. Pete Beach, Fla.
Transferred from North Carolina State after setting Division I freshman record with 27 HRs. Hit .362 with 74 RBIs. Twice named national player of the week at N.C. State. Will be making the switch from mostly DH last year to 3B at LSU.
C Alex Milazzo 5-11/185 Jr. Zachary
One of several positions still in play for the Tigers and could up in a platoon. Milazzo also brings leadership and toughness to the position after missing most of last year with a knee injury. Excellent glove.
DH Paul Skenes 6-6/247 Jr.-Tr. Lake Forest, Calif.
Rare for LSU to have a two-way player, but Skenes, who transferred from Air Force, will also be LSU’s Friday night starting pitcher. Named best two-way player in the NCAA last year, hitting .314 with 13 HRs and 38 RBIs.
RH Paul Skenes 6-6/247 Jr.-Tr. Lake Forest, Calif.
Transfer from Air Force likely will DH when not pitching. Johnson said the two-time all-American has been the clear ace since arriving. Was national co-freshman of the year (with Dylan Crews) in 2021. Power fast ball often flirts with 100 mph. Last year struck out 96 in 852/3 IP.
LH Riley Cooper 6-2/270 Jr.-Tr. Fresno, Calif.
Led LSU with 30 appearances last year, mostly out of the bullpen. 4-3, 4.20 ERA, 35 Ks in 402/3 IP. Appeared in all three games of three SEC series.
RH Chase Shores 6-8/245 Fr. Midland, Texas
Was No. 1-ranked HS pitcher in Texas at Lee HS. No. 5 nationally among RHP and No. 23 overall prospect. For his career was 18-2 with 211 Ks in 142 innings.