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Spring Backwards

The unbearable weight of massive expectations or an underwhelming debut?

LSU v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Let me start by making it abundantly clear that this isn’t meant to be an article that slams Jay Johnson unfairly without merit. I believe he will be successful at LSU and I think he should get more than one year to figure things out.

But this isn’t a “I believe” article, this is a postmortem. And there’s no room for feelings in a morgue.

LSU was eliminated Monday afternoon by Southern Miss, a complete team who swung some big sticks, played clean defense, and had great pitching depth. LSU only had one of those things this weekend.

When we think back to the 2022 Hattiesburg Regional, I’m sure many will remember the late-game comebacks against Kennesaw State, Southern Miss on Saturday and even again on Monday. And those were fun and made for great drama, but the reality is that LSU were only in those situations requiring a furious comeback because they simply couldn’t get out of their own way.

Which brings us to the issues at large for this team, because these were common themes throughout the season.

I used to think that big words carried more meaning than shorter words, for example “atrocious” literally means the same thing as “bad”, but because it’s bigger it’s more severe. That line of thinking has been reversed by a few years of journalism school and writing at a fifth grade reading level, but as I look back on the season, “bad” just doesn’t cover it. LSU played atrocious defense.

There are good defenders on LSU’s team. Tre Morgan is an obvious exception and Dylan Crews played a good outfield, but as a unit, LSU fell woefully short of the mark that a program its stature should be at. And this doesn’t come from a place of being spoiled by Alex Bregman, Josh Smith, Andrew Stevenson and many more players prone to flash some leather, this comes from a place of watching mistakes that would find high school players finding the bench. All season long the Tigers managed to bounce or sail throws to first, horribly misjudge fly balls, get crossed up on pitches, and make generally bad decisions once they did manage to corral the ball.

962.

LSU had a .962 fielding percentage this year. That’s the lowest it’s been since 2007, also known as the first year of the Paul Mainieri era. I’m very glad that this LSU lineup was able to mash and score 8 runs every night, but in part due to their abysmal fielding, they sort of had to score 8 or more each night to have a chance at winning.

But in the end, it wasn’t the fielding that did LSU in. There were some bad fielding instances in the regional, but it didn’t sink LSU. The pitching did.

I’ve lamented before that the reason Paul Maineri didn’t have one or two more rings on his finger was because he couldn’t develop a solid third pitcher. But compared to 2022, those are the halcyon days. Johnson seemingly had little to no faith in anybody who he gave the ball to, and for good reason. In the biggest moment of the year, none of them could find the zone or pitch with confidence. And lord knows they all had an opportunity to on Sunday and Monday.

Paul Gervase, Trent Vietmeier, and Jacob Hasty all had solid seasons overall, but when rubber met the road In Hattiesburg, all of them struggled or essentially received a vote of no confidence from Johnson. More importantly, those three players only gave one start. Nevermind not being able to shore up a third rotation pitcher, LSU couldn’t solidify one. The ERAs of pitchers with 5 or more starts: 4.56, 3.77, 5.12, 5.31.

And to the point of fairness, we knew that pitching would be a weakness of this team heading into the season. But isn’t the point of being a head coach at the highest level of college baseball to coach players up and develop them as players? It’s understandable to start a year without a guy on the mound you have faith in, but it’s damning to end the year without one.

And to reiterate, I’m not saying this to pour dirt on Johnson, I’m saying this because this is the most striking (pun not intended) assessment of his first year in command, a year where he inherited two future first round picks (Dylan Crews and Tre Morgan), added his own (Jacob Berry), with Cade Doughty and Josh Pearson for good measure. And when you frame it that way, it’s hard to view this season as anything other than a bitter disappointment. As aimless as the final Mainieri team was, Johnson’s first year was arguably worse considering the talent he had on hand for it and the renewed excitement around the program.

And I get it, it’s hard to turn things around completely mid-season. But the lack of progress with the defensive ability of this team from February to June combined with the regression – if anything – of the pitching staff is a bitter pill to swallow and one that tamps any real expectation for the future.

And again, what’s disappointing is that LSU wasn’t in a “year zero” situation – they had some real talent on the roster. Paul Mainieri got a year zero pass after walking into the mess Smoke Laval made, Jay Johnson doesn’t. Johnson inherited a frontline program with talent seeping from the walls. We all assumed that heading into year two of the Johnson tenure we’d be hoping that he could be in a position to push LSU forward into a title contending team, but in reality, LSU fans are stuck hoping for wholesale changes to the pitching and defense that are about average. And when average is an improvement, what does that say?

Maybe Johnson’s teams will be more well-rounded in year two. I’m personally hoping like hell for it. But hope doesn’t take away from the disappointment from this year.