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Paul Mainieri opens 2018 baseball with preseason press conference

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs LSU Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Friday, LSU head baseball coach Paul Mainieri spoke with the media for baseball’s yearly preseason press conference.

In his opening statement, Mainieri greeted media members and expressed his excitement and confidence in the 2018 team.

“It’s good to be with you all. It seems like the perpetual season of college baseball. I feel like we just finished in Omaha, and here we are ready to get going again. This is always the most exciting day of the year for me, the first official day of practice. We are three weeks away from opening day. Every year the anxiety of not knowing what the new season holds keeps me young. I worry about everything, of course, but the preseason polls have come out.”

Mainieri doesn’t put too much thought into the polls, though.

“In the polls we are rated anywhere between No. 9-17. We all know the value of preseason polls are probably not worth the time that they take to do them. You earn what you get on the field. I think there’s a wide range of what people might think about our team this year because of the newness of our team. We have 32 active players on our team this year, of which 17 are first year players. If you do the math, we only have 15 returning players from last year’s runners up team. Fortunately for us, those 15 players are very significant guys.”

Mainieri acknowledged the program had lost four of its key players.

“One thing everybody will think about is that we lost four every day players in Greg Deichmann, who was an All-American, hit 19 home runs, a senior double-play combination in Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman and of course, the rock of our team, the catcher Michael Papierski.”

LSU will feature five true returners this season, but Mainieri feels he actually has six total. He sees Bryce Jordan as an overlooked, but key guy on the field.

“Math tells you we have five returning players in starters, but I feel that we have six returners because we are getting Bryce Jordan back, who two years ago was the First Team All-SEC designated hitter. If you feel like you have six returning players, two-thirds of your lineup, you feel like you have some veteran presence out there, some leadership.”

He also noted Eric Walker will miss the season in its entirety. Clearly, Mainieri doesn’t want rush Walker into anything while he’s still in recovery.

“The unfortunate thing of course was Eric Walker, suffering an elbow injury in Omaha. Only God knows what that would have meant had he been able to stay healthy. Maybe it just would have made the difference, but the other part of that is that he’s going to miss the 2018 season in its entirety. Although he has begun throwing and he looked pretty good yesterday when I watched him, he’s on target but we just can’t rush him back. I just can’t do that to the young man. He’s going to need a full 12 months of rehabilitation and throwing before he’s ready to pitch in any sort of competitive way.”

The Tigers will have both Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess back as pitchers. There’s a lot of hype surrounding both players - and rightfully so.

“I do know this: I have a lot of confidence in Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess as returning pitchers. Both of them came into their own in the second half of last year. Everybody will remember Gilbert’s outstanding performance against Oregon State. You can’t pitch much better than that on the biggest stage, but he was pitching excellent ball even up to that point. He pitched an excellent game in Game 1 of the SEC Tournament as a starter. He beat Mississippi State coming out of the bullpen, the clincher that sent us to Omaha. He came in and pitched the last four or five innings, pitched really well. Caleb Gilbert has emerged as a guy in his third year. He’s oozing with confidence. He’s got outstanding stuff. It’s his time to come in his own.”

“Zack Hess, of course, was the big headliner out there in Omaha. Man, he looked like a big league ready relief pitcher out there in Omaha. The temptation certainly is to keep him in that role.”

Mainieri named Todd Peterson as his projected third starter during the press conference. He believes if Peterson had been healthy, he could have taken on a larger workload last season.

“Our third starter right now, if I had to project, would be Todd Peterson. You remember, I was really high on Todd Peterson last year. He had a couple of unfortunate things happen that kind of had his season come to a screeching halt. Had he been healthy, he would have pitched in the first game, he would have started the first game against Florida in the finals. Unfortunately, his shoulder was not capable of doing that. He spent his entire summer and fall getting in better condition. He’s done a lot of work with his throwing arm as far as increasing his strength and flexibility. Honestly, he was throwing outstandingly in fall practice and especially in these early simulated games. He has a chance to be a really good pitcher. My guess is that he will get the game three start opening weekend.”

Mainieri also pointed out junior Cam Sanders as a player to watch this season, comparing him to Aaron Nola.

“It’s going to be uncanny how much he reminds you of Aaron Nola on the mound—his face, his body actions, even his delivery and arm slot, everything. If he has Aaron Nola’s command, then we have a scoop. He’s got really good stuff. He can throw an excess of 90 miles per hour with a curve ball and a breaking ball, a change-up. If he can corral his control, he’s not really wild. He’s just right around the zone and throws about half and half balls and strikes. If we can get that closer to 60-40 or 70-30 percentage, we are going to be in business with Cam Sanders.”

Mainieri said he was excited about watching new hitting coach Sean Ochinko working with Micah Gibbs. Gibbs is sidelined this season after a severe knee injury in a pick-up basketball game earlier this month.

“Micah is a very modern-day, hitting coach. What I mean by that is very much into the analytics, the mechanics, the statistics and those kinds of things. The fact that he can’t go out there and coach on the field, doesn’t prevent him from sitting in front of a computer and watching video, analyzing and doing those type of things that I believe are one of his strengths. I believe that Sean is geared more toward the interaction with the players from a motivational standpoint, energy and enthusiasm. He knows the game inside and out.”

“He has a great way with the kids. I think Micah is going to feed a lot of information to Sean that Sean will then decipher how much he wants to use it and apply it with the players and with the offense in general. I think it’s going to be a good combination. I just can’t emphasize enough how heartbroken I am for Micah. This was really an unfortunate thing that happened, but I am extremely excited about Sean Ochinko. I think our players have embraced him as much as I knew they would. He has an infections personality. He’s full of energy. He has that youthful enthusiasm. He just stopped playing a couple of years ago, so the players can really relate to him. They enjoy him, and I think he is going to be tremendous in his role.”

The depth chart for the infield was laid out as well.

“I’ve pretty much decided that we are going to start with Slaughter at third, Smith at short, (Brandt) Broussard at second and Bryce Jordan at first. My goal with Hal Hughes is going to be to get him into the game as often and as frequently in different roles as I possibly can. That may mean that if we have a lead late in the game, I can flip Slaughter over to first base and put Hughes at third base and put the best defensive team out there trying to hold a lead at the end. Slaughter is going to play third. He’s going to do a good job at third, and that’s probably where he’s more in tune to play even in his pro career days. He’s a much better first baseman than Bryce Jordan because he’s taller, more athletic. He can jump. He’s got infielder-type skills and those type of things.”

Mainieri also took time to highlight freshman Daniel Cabrera, who he believes to go far, long after his days at LSU come to an end.

“There’s no question that his future will be at a hitter/outfielder. There’s no doubt about that. He’s an outstanding ball player. He’s got a great athletic body. He’s strong for a freshman. He runs pretty well. He throws well from the outfield. He’s got a beautiful swing. He has to get a little bit more consistent, a little bit more focus to be able to do it consistently. I think he’s really a good-looking ballplayer. I think you can put him in the category with the LeMahieus and the Bregmans and the Antoine Duplantis’ that were ready to play as a freshman when they arrived at LSU... We may have a need for the best available guy and have to bring him in, but I’m going to try on the days that I’m going to use him or have him available, he’s either going to DH or not have him in the lineup.”

Mainieri doted on his developed sophomore class, three of which are playing at an extraordinarily high level right now.

“Even though they are sophomores, I feel like they are more experienced than even that. The unfortunate thing that you could say for us is three of our sophomores are draft-eligible: Zack Hess, Zach Watson and Jake Slaughter. It’s possible that this may be their last season at LSU. We will have to see how that plays out. There’s no question that they have advanced level of experience based upon the experiences that they had last year.”

Of course, winning a national title is the primary goal for this year’s baseball team. Especially after a heartbreaking end in Omaha in 2017.

“I want to win another national championship as much as anything. It is killing me. I feel like we have had a handful of teams that were capable of winning it that didn’t. It’s a reminder to me just how hard it is to win a national championship.

And it’s easy to see Mainieri is happy with the group of guys he’s got going to bat for him.

“They are great kids. They hustle, they play fundamentally sound, they compete, they We are going to have some disappointing days and it will be part of the learning experience. But, when May and June roll around, I have a sneaking suspicion we will be right back in the hunt.”