When Opening Day comes around and LSU begins their attempt to play a full season in a COVID world, you’ll see something you haven’t seen in a long time.
After the Tigers had a promising 2020 season cut short before SEC play could even begin, in the summer LSU coach Paul Mainieri lifted his long-standing ban on facial hair for players wearing the purple and gold. Mainieri didn’t want to impose further restrictions who had to enter lockdown after having a season end before it could truly begin.
“That was one of the best texts I’ve ever received to this day,” a now-bearded junior first baseman Cade Beloso said. “I think that’s the only time ever we’ve ever responded to Coach Mainieri’s group text. He kind of says stuff and we listen but we were all chirping back, excited.”
If that’s what Mainieri needed to do to take the team’s mind of the the swift cancellation of the 2020 season, then it worked. To a man, the 2021 Tigers have an understanding that what happened in the last calendar year has been unprecedented, but are locked in on the upcoming season.
Aiding to that easiness heading into the new season is a mostly-intact core of young players from last year’s team that were just rounding into form as the season came to an unceremonious close. LSU lost outfielder Daniel Cabrera and Friday night starter Cole Henry in the second round of the MLB Draft along with Saul Garza and Zack Mathis, but nearly every other player returns: catcher Alex Milazzo, first baseman Cade Beloso, infielders Cade Doughty and Collier Cranford, and Giovanni DiGiacomo in the outfield.
“It’s not scaring me at all,” Mainieri said. “I think we have a very talented group of position players. I’m excited about them and as the season goes on and the more experience they gain, I just believe that they’ll continue to get better and better. I just think our team is primed to be one of the top teams in the SEC.”
The pitching staff returns the likes of starters Jaden Hill, Landon Marceaux, and AJ Labas along with bullpen arms Devin Fontenot, Matthew Beck, Ma’Khail Hilliard, and Trent Vietmeier.
Hill has notably garnered a lot of pre-season accolades heading into the season, such as being named the fifth best prospect in the 2021 MLB Draft despite only having 21 innings under his belt in college. But he impressed in the limited action he saw in 2020, recording a three-inning save against Texas and throwing four perfect innings against UMass-Lowell with a fastball that sat in the high 90’s.
Because Hill was brought along slowly and has less experience than Marceaux and Labas (according to Mainieri, he “hardly ever” threw a bullpen session in high school), he’ll have a shorter leash, but the skipper thinks he’s the best athlete on the team and will grow into the role well.
“Last year, it was a very concerted effort with (LSU pitching coach) Alan (Dunn) and I along with (LSU athletic trainer) Cory Couture to bring him along slowly in the spring,” Mainieri said. “We put him in the bullpen. we managed very carefully how many pitches and innings he threw with the idea that we would stretch him out as the year went on...this year, there’s nothing holding him back. He’s going to start the season in the rotation.”
It’s impossible for Hill to not have noticed the hype, but for now he’s only concerned with his duties as a Tiger.
“I’ve just been focused on taking on this starter role,” Hill said. “That’s what a lot of my life has been, training and getting prepared to give my team the best opportunity to win.”
In addition to returning a bevy of starters, the Tigers are also bringing in a number of exciting freshman into the fold such as first baseman Tre’ Morgan, outfielder Dylan Crews, and outfield/left-handed pitcher Brady Drost.
Crews is a Perfect Game and Under Armour All-American, and as the #13 prospect in the 2020 class according to Perfect Game he is the highest rated recruit to attend college. For LSU fans, he draws even higher praise than that with his player comparison from Mainieri.
“Dylan is one of those kids that arrives at LSU and you know there’s something different about them,” Mainieri said. “LeMahieu had that same aura, Bregman had that aura, Duplantis had that aura. Not only is Dylan a talented player, he has a tremendous attitude. He’s as coachable as anybody we’ve had. I tell him he has Bregman’s passion and LeMahieu’s swing.”
According to Mainieri, as an incoming freshman Morgan is already one of the five-best defensive players he’s coached. Mainieri also said if he was brave enough, he’s make Morgan the first left-handed shortstop he’s seen in the SEC. Unfortunately he had to miss his senior year with an elbow injury on his throwing arm, so offensively he might take some time to coming around, but he’ll bring defensive value to a position where it is often overlooked when building a team.
Brady Drost is the reigning Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year from Barbe and could potentially see the field both as a starter in the outfield as well as a pitcher. As a pitcher he’s already somebody who can throw in the low 90’s with some pretty sharp break, and as a batter he’s what Mainieri called “a budding Greg Deichmann,” indicating a possible trajectory as LSU’s power-hitting outfielder of the future.