As the Alex Box Stadium lights were turned off for the final time this season, the careers of many LSU baseball players who shined under them came to an end. An end that never seemed to match the beginning.
After a beginning that saw LSU play for a national championship in Omaha two years, the Tigers failed to make it back to the Mecca of college baseball last year, but four underclassmen played pivotal roles in helping LSU get there in 2017 were back as upperclassmen and ready to lead LSU back to Omaha.
Those four – right fielder Antoine Duplantis, pitcher Zack Hess, shortstop Josh Smith and center fielder Zach Watson – were a big reason why hopes were so high and LSU was the preseason favorite and No. 1 team in the nation at the beginning of the season.
But things didn’t go as planned or as predicted. The team faced adversity on and off the field for the entire year, whether it was constant injuries or the loss of coach Paul Mainieri’s father, Demie, in the middle of the season.
Things never seemed to break right for LSU throughout the season, and after a season-ending loss to Florida State in the Baton Rouge Super Regional, the emotion poured out as Duplantis graduated and the other three are juniors but expected to sign with MLB teams after getting selected in the draft.
Smith was picked in the second round, 67 overall, by the Yankees, Watson went in the third round, 79 overall, to the Orioles, while Tigers drafted Hess in the seventh round, 202 overall and the Mets chose Duplantis in the 12th round, 358 overall.
“The toughest thing about this business – I just finished my 37th year – it’s not just the losing and seeing a season come to an end, it’s how do you say goodbye to people that are such a big part of your life,” Mainieri said.
“When they leave you feel like a piece of you leaves with them. We’ve been out there on that field for three or four years together, sweating, working, going through the ups and downs that every season is, and we develop an affection for each other.”
Maybe the team didn’t reach expectations, but in their exit, all four players left a huge mark on LSU baseball. Duplantis leaves as the school’s all-time hits leader while Hess, donning the “Wild Thing” nickname, was one of most electric pitchers to ever put on a LSU uniform.
Watson and Smith were both defensive stalwarts and compounded that with ability at the plate. Duplantis (91), Smith (89) and Watson (73) were the top three hitters for LSU in 2019, and now it appears they will all be gone.
“I’ve been here for four years and this feels like a part of my life now,” said Duplantis as he was trying to stop himself from crying in the press conference following the loss to Florida State. “For this to come to an end, it’s tough.”
Smith described Duplantis as “everything LSU baseball has to offer” and said he’s never played with a better player or person than Duplantis.
“He’s done so much for this program,” Smith said. “He gave everything he could to this program. That’s one guy I’ll look up to for the rest of my life.
“[Duplantis] has done everything for me. He’s made me a better baseball player and he’s made everyone on this team a better ball player by just seeing how he comes in everyday and works. He’s one of my best friends and I’m lucky to have spent three years with him.
“I love him an I’m going to miss him a lot next year. I can’t express how awesome he’s been to this program and he’s had a hell of a career.”
Duplantis finished with 359 hits, seven ahead of Eddy Furniss, who held the record at 352 since 1998. Duplantis also has the school-record for most triples with 16 and he has 216 career RBIs.
The senior had a chance to leave last season after he was selected in the MLB draft but decided to pass up the opportunity to play at LSU one more year. He said he has no regrets about returning and, in truth, didn’t want to play pro ball and leave something on the table at LSU.
“I had to put everything I had into it and I have to thank the coaches, my parents, and all of my teammates,” Duplantis said. “It sounds cliché but it’s been a dream come true. I’ve dreamt about it my entire life, and I’m very grateful for everything that has happened.”
And even though Duplantis’ storybook career didn’t end with a national championship, his name will still shine atop LSU’s record book for years to come.