Strong up the middle

The 2009 version of the LSU Tiger infield enters the season with a two-faced approach, working with two of the nation's best up the middle and two new starters on the corners.

After a memorable run to Omaha in 2008, the Tigers are minus Matt Clark, who led the nation in home runs last season, and senior captain Michael Hollander. Yet, pre-season All Americans D. J. LeMahieu and Ryan Schimpf make up the core of what could become the Southeastern Conference's most dynamic unit.

 

LeMahieu played in 68 games (67 starts at shortstop) in his freshman campaign, batting .337 (87-for-258) with 11 doubles, one triple, six homeruns, 44 RBI and 10 steals.

 

This past summer, the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-native came into his own in the Cape Cod League, named the No. 6 prospect in the league by Baseball America magazine. LeMahieu was the regular-season MVP for the Harwich Mariners, batting .290 (31-for-107) with five doubles, one homer, 13 RBI and 16 runs in 28 games.

 

Heading into his sophomore year carrying heavy expectations on his shoulders, head coach Paul Mainieri feels that the sophomore shortstop will be ready for the challenges that await.

 

"You hate to think that he could give you more than last season because he was great, but he should be a wonder once again," Mainieri said. "D.J. is so smooth with his motions and plays the field well, and he is one of our most clutch hitters. He just has the patience and the presence and confidence to get a leg up on everyone else.

 

"In pressure situations he will step up and do something good," added Mainieri. "He is going to bat fifth in the order, so he is in a key RBI spot. I think he will continue to improve and get better and better because he just has that love for the game, and he will be great for us this year."

 

His counterpart at second base is not far behind in terms of expected output, seeing the junior come off perhaps the team's most explosive summer performance. Rated by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect for 2008 in the Valley League, a summer collegiate league in Virginia, Schimpf batted .392 with three doubles, 11 homers and 27 RBI in 27 games en route to earning Valley League Championship Series MVP honors.

 

"I think Ryan is one of the most underrated players in the country," Mainieri said. "When people talk position players they want to talk about [Jared] Mitchell, [Blake] Dean, LeMahieu, [Micah] Gibbs, and somehow Ryan is just forgotten about. But what he did last year was amazing. Twelve home runs and going over 50 RBI, hitting .300 and only making three errors on defense.

 

"Then he went out in the summer and did virtually the same thing. He hit 11 home runs in 100 at bats and only struck out nine times, and that just boggles my mind. And he only committed three errors all summer.”

 

Last season, Schimpf was fifth on the team with a .320 batting average, and third in both homers and RBI. He will provide what Mainieri hopes will be three tough outs in the No. 2 hole.

 

“He is a solid ball player and probably one of the unsung heroes of our team,” Mainieri said of Schimpf. “But he won’t be under the radar this season, and I am going to start him hitting second in the order. I can have Landry, Schimpf and then Dean right in a row, and that gives me a great 1-2-3 punch."

 

Derek Helenihi, who started primarily in right field for the Tigers in 2008, moves to third base this season to replace Hollander.

 

The Tigers' skipper said that he sees the California-native stepping in and picking up where Hollander left off, giving LSU the strength at the hot corner to make the run to Omaha once more.

 

"I have always felt third base was the most underrated position on the field from a defensive standpoint," Mainieri said. "Mike was so solid for us last year, and Derek has the ability to play just as well. He has the talent, skill and experience, he just needs to go out there and put it together.”

 

Helenihi notched ten starts at the corner position last season, batting .295 (71-for-241) on the year with 10 doubles, four triples, three homers and 43 RBI. He was one of the Tigers hottest hitters through one stretch last season and Mainieri hopes to see more of that on a consistent basis in 2009.

 

"He could be a big force for us offensively," stated Mainieri. "He led the team in hitting for about a month last year in the middle of the season, so he can be great. Is it a concern of mine that he tailed off at the end of last year? Certainly it is. He needs to show that he can have tough games and at bats and still bounce back. I can't teach him that, so he will need to just go out and do it."

 

Senior Sean Ochinko will attempt to fill the void left by Clark at first base, coming off of a 2008 season in which he played in 47 games (30 starts), batting .272 (37-for-136) with six doubles, four homers and 21 RBI.

 

"Sean is a great first baseman, and he has a lot more agility than you think he would since he is a wide bodied guy," Mainieri said. "He is not as tall as Matt was, but he will do a good job for us.”

 

Ochinko has some big shoes to fill as Clark’s 28 homers tied for the nation’s lead with Georgia’s Gordon Beckham. While matching those totals may be a bit too much to ask, Mainieri feels that Ochinko can still get the job done. 

 

"Offensively, I know it sounds crazy that you think you will replace a guy that led the nation in home runs, but he can make things happen," said Mainieri. "He adds a good sense of balance to our line up, because if you take Chad Jones, you have four left-handed hitters, four right-handed hitters and a switch hitter, and that is a good thing."

 

Ochinko will also look to serve in relief duty for Micah Gibbs after starting 21 games at the catcher position last season.

 

Buzzy Haydel and Chris McGhee bring veteran leadership to the infield in reserve duties, while freshmen Tyler Hanover, Austin Nola and Wet Dellatte will all contend for playing time should Mainieri need more help.

 

After the group lost one of its core members from 2008 with Clark's departure to the MLB, many fans felt that the Tiger infield would be lacking in production this season. Yet, with Ochinko and Helenihi at the corners, and LeMahieu and Schimpf remaining two of the country's elite up the middle, the sky looks to be the limit for the Bayou Bengals’ infield in 2009.

 

 

Projected Starters

 

First Base

14 - Sean Ochinko 5-11, 206, Jr. Parkland, Fla. (Douglas HS)

.272 BA (37-for-136), 6 2B, 4 HR, 21 RBI

 

Second Base

16 - Ryan Schimpf 5-9, 181, Jr. Covington, La. (St. Paul's HS)

.320 BA (80-for-250), 18 2B, 7 3B, 12 HR, 54 RBI

 

Shortstop

17 - DJ LeMahieu 6-4, 193, So. Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice HS)

.337 BA (87-for-258), 11 2B, 1 3B, 6 HR, 44 RBI

 

Third Base

5 - Derek Helenihi 6-0, 170, Sr. Livermore, Calif. (Granada HS)

.295 BA (71-for-241), 10 2B, 4 3B, 3 HR, 43 RBI

 

Reserves

 

2 – Buzzy Haydel 5-11, 190, Sr. Gonzales, La. (East Ascension HS)

.375 BA (6-for-16), 2 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBI

 

32 – Chris McGhee 5-9, 170, Sr. Alexandria, La. (Alexandria HS)

.310 BA (9-for-29) 3 2B, 3 RBI (High School)

 

11 - Tyler Hanover 5-6, 163, Fr. Kernersville, N.C. (North Davidson HS)

.475 BA, 8 2B, 12 HR, 43 RBI (High School)

 

36 – Austin Nola 5-11, 192, Fr. Baton Rouge, La. (Catholic HS)

.447 BA, 42 RBI, 13 HR

 

9 – Wet Delatte 5-11, 211, Fr. Prairieville, La. (St. Amant HS)

.455 BA, 15 2B, 10 HR, 50 RBI (High School)


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