Mainieri has high hopes for LSU future

<p class="p1">LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri has never been shy about elevating expectations for a fan base that doesn’t really need much encouragement.</p><p class="p4">But Monday at LSU — surely the only college team in the country with a July baseball press conference — Mainieri sounded convinced that the Tigers absence from Omaha and the College World Series this year will be an aberration.</p><p class="p4">Most of his optimism comes from a rare win-win result while battling the Major League draft for talent.</p><p class="p4">Mainieri not only had three key current players decide against turning pro after being drafted — pitcher Zack Hess, and outfielders Zach Watson and Antoine Duplantis — but LSU lost only three from the incoming signing class to the draft. It’s an unusually low number and none were unexpected, including California shorstop Brice Turang, who was a first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers who signed just before the deadline.</p><p class="p4">As is, the Tigers will have 16 new players next season.</p><p class="p4">“I believe this is the best recruiting class in the country,” Mainieri said, an assessment most recruiting services have agreed with. “We could have lost half a dozen or more to the draft.</p><p class="p4">“No doubt in my mind we have a championship-caliber team personnel wise.  Now our job is to build it into something beautiful.”</p><p class="p4">Mainieri said that most importantly the incoming class will provide the pitching depth the Tigers didn’t have last year.</p><p class="p4">He also expects to get back two key players who missed all or most of last season.</p><p class="p4">Pitcher Eric Walker, a freshman All-American two years ago who missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery, is already back throwing and will be “full-go” for fall practice.</p><p class="p4">Shortstop Josh Smith, who missed most of the year with chronic back pain, hasn’t had any discomfort lately, Mainieri said.</p><p class="p4">Mainieri had just returned from coaching Team USA — a “bucket list” chore, he said — where three of his own players played key roles as the squad went 12-3 against national teams from China. Canada and Cuba.</p><p class="p4">Duplantis was injured early for the team after a collision with an outfield wall— Mainieri said he’s fine now —  but Hess, Watson and outfielder Daniel Cabrera all excelled.</p><p class="p4">Hess had an up and down sophomore college season after making the move from reliever to starter last year.</p><p class="p4">“The jump he made was unbelievable,” Mainieri said his Team USA performance. “His mechanics were superb. I think he’ll be a great starting pitcher. My feeling is that he’s going to have that consistency … I think he’ll be a great starting pitcher and a first-round draft pick.”</p><p class="p4">Watson?</p><p class="p4">“He played pretty much like he played last spring —periods of absolute greatness and times where pitch selection wasn’t what it should be. He certainly belonged on that team. Hope (this season) will be best he’s ever been.”</p><p class="p4">Cabrera, he said,  “is on the way to becoming awesome.” </p><p class="p4">Other notes from Mainieri’s press conference:</p><p class="p5">• Jared Foster, who finished his LSU baseball career in 2015, will join the team this year as a undergraduate assistant. Foster, who originally went to LSU as a preferred walk-on quarterback in football but ended up concentrating on baseball, will replace Leon Landry, who has landed as full-time assistant position at Southern. Foster had a four-year minor league career until being released recently by the Minnesota Twins organization.</p><p class="p5">• Otherwise, Mainieri plans to keep his coaching staff intact, including leaving Sean Ochinko at hitting coach and Micah Gibbs as director of player development.</p><p class="p5">Gibbs was to be hitting coach last year before he suffered a serious knee injury just before the season began that prevented it. Mainieri thinks Gibbs thrived in his new role and like him there.</p><p class="p5">Ochinko was thrown into the fire as hitting coach despite not going through fall ball with last year’s Tigers, but Mainieri was impressed with how he learned on the fly.</p><p class="p5">“I think that Sean Ochinko has the capabilities of being a great hitting coach,” Mainieri said. “Not a good hitting coach, but a great hitting coach.</p><p class="p5">“I like the way our staff is working right now, so we’re going to give it a go and see if we can make some magic happen.”</p><p class="p5">• The NCAA will allow schools to play two practice games against other schools during fall ball. LSU will use both to play UNO, once at home, once in New Orleans.</p><p class="p5">• LSU, which traditionally has played a home-and-home series with Tulane every year,  won’t play the Green Wave at all this year. </p><p class="p5">Mainieri said that “It’s time to treat Tulane as everybody else.” Normally with in-state schools, LSU visits them every four-five years with the bulk of the games played in Alex Box Stadium.</p><p class="p5">Mainieri said he offered Tulane a game in Baton Rouge late in the season, but, as it stands now, the two won’t play again until 2020 in the Wally Pontiff Classic at a neutral field in New Orleans.</p><p class="p5">• Mainieri said incoming freshman pitcher Jaden Hill not only turned down pro money to come to LSU, but also had offers to play quarterback from at least one SEC school, Missouri. The Ashdown, Ark., native talked with Ed Orgeron about the possibility of football at LSU, but will concentrate on baseball.</p><p class="p3"> </p>””<p>LSU pitcher Zack Hess throws to an Oregon State batter during an NCAA college baseball tournament regional game in Corvallis, Ore.</p>Associated Press