One of the question marks that loomed over this year’s LSU baseball team was whether anybody could fill the void left at the plate with the departure of four of the most productive hitters from the National Championship team.
Then, DJ LeMahieu led the team with a .350 average. Ryan Schimpf’s home run total (22) was five better than the next man in line, Blake Dean. Sean Ochinko, with the knack for a big hit, finished with a .333 average.
And there was Jared Mitchell, a renaissance player of sorts who could do it all for Mainieri. Batting from the leadoff spot, the future first-round MLB selection batted .327, recording 14 doubles, five triples and 11 home runs. He drew a team-high 57 walks and successfully swiped a bag on 36 of his 45 attempts.
With the exception of sophomore Trey Watkins, the new names in Mainieri’s lineup haven’t been able to match the consistency of the departed four.
So when the LSU-Eunice transfer dislocated his left elbow on April 2 against Georgia, the impact in the lineup was felt immediately.
Gone from the batting order was the new Mitchell, the prototypical leadoff man that, over 25 games played, led the Southeastern Conference with 36 runs and five triples.
“The key loss was Watkins,” said senior first baseman Blake Dean. “The guy was normally on base and would get something going, whether after getting hit by a pitch or drawing a walk. It will be key getting him back.”
While Watkins is back in uniform and participating in practice, the timeframe for his return to the everyday lineup is still being monitored.
Standing outside the dugout during practice on Wednesday, Mainieri kept a close eye on Watkins’ performance from the plate and Alex Edward’s glove in the field; still uncertain of how the lineup would look for their weekend series with Kentucky.
“We have to have another day to find out what we are going to do,” Mainieri said. “I have to watch Edward another day at third [base]. He looks okay. I don’t think he looks like a gold-glover, but I don’t think he looks terrible either.”
Edward found a home in left field following Watkins’ departure, batting .389 (14-for-36) since he took over the role during the Ole Miss series.
With Watkins expected back in left field at some point over the next two weekends, Mainieri intends on keeping Edward’s bat in the lineup.
Possibilities are between designated hitter and third base, a position that Edward played at Parkview Baptist during high school. His competition will be Wet Delatte and Grant Dozar, a pair of left-handed batters that have shared time at third base already this season.
With Edward batting from the right side, Mainieri will await the Kentucky staff’s order of appearances before making any further calls.
“I haven’t seen their rotation, but I am anticipating one left-hander, and [Edward] would have a chance to play third against a left-handed pitcher so we can get as many right-handed bats into the lineup as we can.”
If third baseman becomes a committee approach, Edward could also be plugged in for Matt Gaudet at DH. After cranking out a team-high 14 home runs through the Ole Miss series, Gaudet has gone cold, batting just .143 over the past nine games.
Of course, the moves still hinge on the health status of Watkins, who appears headed for the clear after swinging the bat well in practice on Tuesday.
“In the scrimmage he got a couple of hits,” Mainieri said. “In batting practice it looked like he didn’t have the bat speed, but then we got into the scrimmage and he hit a line drive single to right center and a double into the corner off [Chris] Matulis. If he is decent again today and tomorrow, then I’m probably going to throw him right back in there.
“Trey will hit first or second,” he added. “I don’t know what I am going to do with [Mikie] Mahtook. I could leave [Austin] Nola second and put Mahtook fifth, some combination like that.”