With another freshman added to head coach Paul Mainieri’s starting lineup on Tuesday when he had just 16 regular season games to play, it was evident that the No. 6-ranked Tigers still have some kinks to work out.
Yet, the LSU skipper said that there is little to fear, for the youth influx is one that he has weathered before.
“I have had a lot of experience playing young players,” Mainieri said. “In 1999 at Notre Dame I had five freshmen in the everyday lineup, and we became the first northern school to be awarded a host site in the NCAA’s.
“In 2003, the year after we went to the World Series, I played a handful of freshmen,” he added. “And then my first year at LSU we played four freshmen, so I have been in this spot before.”
He said that the decision is made simple by his take on the college game.
“I go by the very basic premise that you play the best guys,” he said with a chuckle. “When I recruit these kids, I promise them that I will play the guys that deserve to play. If you are one of the best nine guys, you will be out there.”
One national recruit who benefitted from the headman’s promise is Tyler Hanover.
The North Carolina native jumped into the lineup at third base for Derek Helenihi ten games into the season, and is batting .323 with two homers and 35 RBI over 40 outings.
With that level of production under his belt, Hanover said that he has to credit the headman with keeping his promise.
“Coming into college I knew that I was highly recruited, so when coach Mainieri said that I could come to LSU and get the chance to work for a starting spot immediately, I took it,” he said.
“That was all anyone could ask for, and coach kept true to his word when I started working hard enough to get onto the field,” he added. “I think that my move is no different than Austin Nola’s, and it is because coach wants to have the best shot at winning the rest of our games.”
Nola, who took over at shortstop this week, moving DJ LeMahieu to second base, looks to provide the double play threat up the middle that Mainieri has been looking for. The Tigers had problems turning two with the middle infield, but Nola had a hand in three double plays against Southeastern on Tuesday and made a terrific play to end the game by charging a grounder and rifling to first for the final out.
“I had been thinking about the move for a few weeks,” Mainieri said. “I had actually written down Nola’s name on the Saturday scorecard against Tennessee, but I decided that I would hold off. When we dropped the series, though, I kind of saw it as the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The Baton Rouge native, who is batting .304 on the year with six runs on seven hits, including one home run, said that the move was not one that he saw coming.
“I was really surprised, because I was not expecting it,” Nola said.
“I have about five starts now, so I don’t feel like I was getting moved into a completely fresh situation,” he added. “I knew that if something ever happened to DJ that I had to be ready, so getting in this late in the season is something I had to be at least prepared for.”
With LeMahieu moved to second, Nola said that the two are quickly building the bond that Mainieri is looking for.
“DJ helps me out a lot, because I am not too familiar with all the plays yet,” Nola said. “He tells me when to cover and be ready, and I think that once I get things down we will be able to be pretty consistent. I think the team is in a better place, for sure.”
Mikie Mathook, who made his Tiger debut in right field in a battle that included Chad Jones and Helenihi, is batting .351 in 19 starts. The freshman has scored 21 runs and driven in 16 more on 26 hits with four homers on the year.
The second freshman to break onto the field on the year, Mahtook said that the youth wave, no matter the timing, is one that reflects the team’s desire to return to Omaha.
“None of us know what will win games, so when we can get a good idea of how we are strongest, we have to roll with it,” he said. “There is no timetable set for the lineup to be made, and I think coach is showing that.”
Of course, for Nola, the arrival of the group onto the starting card shows just how far they have come.
“We talked about making a run to start when we all got here together,” he said.
“But you have to think, we were coming into a squad that was the No. 1 team in the country and had eight starters already decided,” he added. “There was a small chance, but we worked hard and stay focused.”
Matty Ott (2-1), who stepped into the closer role for Louis Coleman (8-2), and Chris Matulis (4-2), who is the Tigers midweek starter, rounds out the group of true freshmen who have already made their presence felt for the Tigers.
With the lineup in place, at least for now, the Tigers and their host of youngsters welcome Auburn to Baton Rouge on Friday.
“This is a big series as we try to get back on the right track in the SEC race,” said Mainieri. “We had to regroup this week and we earned two mid-week wins; now our focus is on the last 14 regular-season games.”