Setting the groundwork early

Raph Rhymes' amazing gesture last June helped set the stage for LSU's 2012 turnaround season. Now he and the Tigers head into the postseason looking for a storybook ending.

There are plenty of reasons LSU left fielder Raph Rhymes has helped make this a season to remember for himself and his teammates and coaches.


For several weeks, the junior from Monroe took serious aim at hitting .500 – a rare feat at any level of baseball, let alone in the tough-as-nails SEC with the caliber of pitching as good as anywhere this side of pro baseball.


Rhymes cooled off, which was inevitable, and goes into the postseason hitting a mere .469. He leads the Tigers with 49 RBIs and will be a focal point for however they’re alive and kicking in the NCAA Tournament next month.


In a season that began with a major questions for LSU about who would help fill the void left behind by three-year starter and everybody’s All-American Mikie Mahtook, Rhymes helped supply a large part of that answer.


Turns out, Rhymes’ contributions to the Tigers’ quick turnaround and road back to the top of the college baseball heap began a lot sooner than anybody realized.


Everybody except Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri.


Flash back to last June when the 2011 NCAA Tournament field was unveiled and LSU was left out, a shocking finish to a season that had turned in the right direction in May as the Tigers fought their way back from an abysmal swoon that left them 7-14 in the SEC at one point.


Then the Major League Baseball Draft arrived and – as usual – LSU’s roster and recruiting class was hit hard as pro teams drafted several players.


Mainieri was admittedly grumpy when the draft was unfolding and then there was added insult to injury when he was taken aback that Rhymes, the LSU designated hitter most of last season, was taken in the 40th round by Pittsburgh.


The player and coach had set up an end-of-season meeting before Rhymes was picked, and when he was snagged the morning of that get-together, Mainieri sent Rhymes a text message congratulating him – half figuring that would be the last time he communicated with Rhymes, who Mainieri thought would take whatever the Pirates were offering and bolt.


But Rhymes surprised his coach for the first time that day when he texted back and asked if the meeting was still on.


When they sat down it Mainieri’s office, it was Rhymes who initiated the conversation.


“He sat down and says ‘Listen, first of all let me tell you this: Don’t worry about me signing. I’m coming back to LSU. You don’t have to worry about that at all,’ ” Mainieri said.


“Then he said ‘Do you think it would be OK if I gave up my scholarship to help our team? Would you be able to use my scholarship to give it to somebody else to help make us a better team?’ ”


Raph Rhymes: Takes a national-best .469 batting average into the SEC Tournament

Now, stop, read that again and let it soak in for a minute.


The best hitter in the country this season, a player likely to earn the SEC Player of the Year honors next week, was a non-scholarship player for LSU.


Mainieri apologized before he told the story in case he got emotional. Nobody assembled would’ve batted an eye if he had.


“You talk about a pick-me-up for the coach,” Mainieri said. “We were really down at that point.


“I had tears in my eyes and I got up and gave him a hug and thanked him. And I knew this team was going to do something at that moment because we had kids like that in our program.”


At Rhymes’ request, Mainieri kept that story under wraps until Monday.


And whether by design or not, the coach didn’t divulge it until Rhymes had left the Alex Box Stadium and loaded up on the bus fired up and ready to carry the Tigers to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament.


As you get to know Rhymes, you understand why he didn’t want his magnanimous gesture to be a headline while this season played out.


Part of that is Rhymes simply being a laid-back country kid. He’s redneck and proud of it – just ask him.


Last week for example, Rhymes was more interested and excited about talking about his association with the characters on the A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty,” which is filmed in West Monroe.


More than anything, though, Rhymes – like so many of his current Tiger teammates – is more about the team than anything he’s done on or off the field.


There are some players who when you ask them about hitting in situations or whether they’re slumping, etc., you know their first thought is on an individual level. Nothing wrong with that because baseball is a wonderful blend of individual talent with teamwork and group accomplishment.


With Rhymes, it’s very different.


When asked about his 0-for-4 day against Vanderbilt last week that dropped his average below that magical .500 mark and ended a 16-game hitting streak, there was no woe-is-me undercurrent to his answer. He was just damn mad he had stranded runners – twice rolling into double plays – in a game the Tigers could’ve won.


It irked him, plain and simple. Rhymes’ answers, like his emotions that day, were raw.


Just like last season when he couldn’t do enough to help LSU be better, despite hitting .360 (the last month with one healthy arm) and emerging as a talented complement to Mahtook.


Rhymes did something to fix that situation then and you get the feeling that he’s far from finished when it comes to making sure that evolution is finished this season.

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