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The Road to Omaha: Five things to watch during LSU’s upcoming 2023 campaign

LSU’s opponents will have to look at “The Intimidator” every time they come to The Box

Editor’s Note: everyone give a nice warm welcome to our newest contributor Grant! He’s going to be helping us out with baseball and football

The expectations in Baton Rouge are as high as ever as LSU’s baseball team has been ranked as the No. 1 team in the country by every single college baseball top 25 poll.

LSU head coach Jay Johnson will be in his second year as the skipper for the Tigers. With star players Tre’ Morgan and Dylan Crews returning and a slew of transfers coming in, LSU is looking for a chance to return to Omaha for the first time since 2017, where the Tigers lost to conference rivals Florida in the College World Series final.

However, Johnson is reminding the team that they will have to stay focused as much as possible because it takes a team to play well together to meet their goals, not its individual talent.

“One of my biggest jobs with this generation is understanding the difference between substance and image, or hype and reality,” Johnson said in November. “It’s about the play. Baseball is a unique sport, where it’s not the team with the best players; it’s the team that plays the best that day.”

Here are five things LSU fans need to look out for during the season.

  1. Although improved, there’s still questions about the infield

LSU was massively inconsistent last season when it came to the infield. SS Jordan Thompson struggled last year with 18 errors, which led the team. Although this was mostly due to his lingering knee injuries last year, having 18 errors does not really help LSU, especially when the Tigers are trying to make it back to Omaha for the first time since 2017.

Despite his struggles, Jay Johnson was very adamant that Jordan Thompson is the starting shortstop of LSU. However, if Thompson does struggle, don’t be surprised if Johnson turns to VCU transfer Ben Nippolt or true freshman Gavin Guidry.

The battle at second base is the only position on the field that is still tightly contested. It’s a three-way race between Gavin Dugas, Ben Nippolt, and Jack Merrifield.

Dugas, who led LSU in home runs with 18 in 2021, has struggled to get on the field due to injuries. He has moved to second base from right field due to the departure of Cade Doughty.

Nippolt, who transferred in from VCU, was an all-conference performer last year for the Rams. He is a player who can play both shortstop and second base.

Merrifield, who struggled last year at third base, has moved back to his original position at second base. Merrifield came to LSU as the junior college defensive player of the year and is a sleeper to win the role.

NC State transfer Tommy White will be starting at third base. White has been really impressive at third base as he is showing some athleticism that not a lot of people thought he had.

Although there was some speculation that he may move to the outfield, 1B Tre Morgan will stay in the infield. Morgan is a potential 1st round pick due to his elite hitting skills and defensive prowess at first base.

2.Pitching staff has serious depth

After LSU struggled last year with starting pitching and depth in its pitching staff, Jay Johnson hit the transfer portal and hit it hard.

LSU landed Air Force utility player and MWC Pitcher of the Year Paul Skenes and UCLA RHP Thatcher Hurd in the transfer portal. LSU also landed talented relief pitcher Christian Little through the transfer portal as well. Little pitched for Vanderbilt last year and made an appearance against LSU as well.

RHP Ty Floyd returns and was shown to be a bright spot near the end of last season. His fastest pitch during the spring was at 97 mph and has developed some breaking balls as well. He will be in the starting rotation as the Saturday pitcher.

Johnson has said that Skenes will be the Friday night starter and Hurd will pitch on Sundays.

LSU also brought in a number of talented pitchers in its 2023 recruiting class 6’8 RHP Chase Shores, LHP Griffin Herring and LHP D.J. Primeaux should all receive time on the mound. RHP Jaden Noot would have seen some time on the mound if not for a season-ending injury.

Shores threw a pitch that was nearly 100 mph during one of the preseason scrimmages and it would not surprise me if he somehow entered the starting rotation. I think he is the first guy that comes out of the bullpen because he is capable of pitching in a game for a long period of time.

Although it may not be as big as it seems due to the depth, but the pitching staff took a significant hit on Monday. RHP Grant Taylor, who was projected to be a top 15 draft pick in this year’s MLB draft, tore his UCL and is out for the year.

He was supposed to be a key guy in the rotation and in my opinion could have taken over the role of the closer after the departures of Eric Reyzelman and Paul Gervase to the draft.

Relief pitchers LHP Riley Cooper, RHP Bryce Collins, RHP Sam Dutton and RHP Blake Money also return as well. LSU also added junior college transfer LHP Nate Ackenhousen, who has a nasty curveball.

3. Who’s the closer?

Heading into the 2023 season, LSU needs to find its closer.

Last year, LSU had a terrific closer in Paul Gervase. Gervase had a 1.85 ERA, 52 strikeouts and six saves. Gervase also had a win-loss record of 4-1.

However, Gervase was drafted by the New York Mets in the 12th round and decided to sign with the Mets after originally announcing he was coming back when he didn’t get drafted the previous day.

LSU may have had a closer in Grant Taylor, but he is out for the year with an UCL tear. H

The good news is that LSU has plenty of options due to the added depth from recruiting and the transfer portal.

Riley Cooper is one option and looks like he could have a big year this year. Cooper has pitched in some big games, including the College World Series, so he really isn’t afraid of the bright lights. He is also a lefty, something that could help LSU late in games. Cooper was credited with a save last year as well.

Another option is Bryce Collins, who transferred to LSU along with Cooper when Jay Johnson bolted from Arizona to take the LSU job. Collins has a fastball that can reach 95 mph and recorded a 3.62 ERA with a 3-1 win-loss record. Collins is somebody that Johnson can rely on due to familiarity and has praised his improvements throughout fall camp.

Another option is RHP Garrett Edwards who has experience in late game situations. Edwards had four saves along with a 3.41 ERA his freshman year under former coach Paul Manieri and looked to be the next big pitcher at LSU. However, Edwards took a step back last year as he had a 6.70 ERA and fell out of favor with Johnson. It will be interesting to see if he gets back to his phenomenal freshman year.

4. Expect to see two catchers behind the plate this year

Due to having two really good catchers in a tightly contested battle between the veteran Alex Milazzo and true freshman Brady Neal.

Milazzo has returned after missing most of last year due to injuries. He was greatly missed last season as both Tyler McManus and Hayden Travinski struggled to keep the ball from getting behind them. Milazzo’s return allows stability at the catcher position as his defense is top notch and many balls won’t be getting by him this year.

However, the Achilles heel of Milazzo’s game is the part of the game Jay Johnson values most: hitting.

In 2022, Milazzo recorded a batting average of .227, an on-base percentage of .346 and had 4 RBIs in 12 games. In 2021, where he was the full-time starter at catcher, he recorded a .135 batting average and only hit the ball 17 times out of his 126 at-bats.

That’s where Neal comes in. Neal was the No.2 catcher and the No.29 overall prospect in the country, according to Perfect Game. Neal is the perfect two-tool catcher as he can both catch and hit effectively.

Neal batted .359 with a .485 on-base percentage and a .577 slugging percentage in his senior season at IMG Academy. Neal also hit five home runs along with only striking out 15 times.

Even though they are vying for the catcher position, Milazzo and Neal have really bonded through the process, and even Neal reminds Milazzo of what he was like when he was a freshman.

“I see a lot of myself in him defensively,” Milazzo said. “He has been fun to work with and we build off of each other.”

5. Who will hit more home runs: Crews or Tommy Tanks?

LSU has two of the best power hitters in the country in SEC Player of the Year Dylan Crews and NC State transfer Tommy White.

Crews hit 22 home runs, 11 doubles and 4 triples. Crews also recorded a batting average of .349 and a slugging percentage of .691.

White had a batting average .362 with 85 hits, 12 doubles, 27 home runs, 74 RBIs and a .757 slugging percentage last year as a true freshman for NC State. White led all freshmen in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. His 27 home runs are also a freshman NCAA record.

It will be very exciting to see who wins this arms race as both of these guys are very talented sluggers. Crews and White will remind a lot of Tiger fans of 1997 during the Gorilla Ball era. These guys are also on the Golden Spikes award watch list as well.