Louisiana’s winter season should be considered the eighth wonder of the world.
Some days, a bitter cold grips the land as clouds cover the sky in an overcast thick enough to make people forget about the sun’s existence.
This would also be an appropriate description of the current state of sports in Louisiana. The sting of the Saints’ loss in the NFC Championship and the recent revelation of Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis’s trade request have frozen hearts and left many of us wondering if we’ll ever feel the glowing embrace of the sun again.
Luckily, there is another side to winters in Louisiana. I’m referring to those days when you walk outside wearing a light jacket or long sleeve as beams of light pierce through the clouds to remind you that the sun is still shining and warmer days are ahead.
To many, LSU’s baseball media day was the ray of sunshine that began to loosen the frosty clutches of our sports winter. The return of Tiger baseball excites fans who reach back into their memories to relive the moments of championship glory from such a storied and successful program.
LSU fans are far from being trapped in the past though. This year’s edition of LSU baseball is expected to couple the veteran leadership returning from last season’s team with elite talent incoming from the Tigers’ top-ranked recruiting class.
While the hype around the 2019 team has certainly been built high enough to culminate in a No. 1 preseason rank by various polling outlets, I would personally prefer to analyze the team some more before I open myself back up to the possibility of heartbreak.
Let’s start with what we know. Junior right-hander Zack Hess will be the Friday night starter for the Tigers, no questions asked. After bursting onto the scene in 2017 as a dominant closer who posted a 7-1 record with four saves and an earned run average of 3.12, Hess struggled to mold into the role of a starting pitcher.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Hess made significant strides in the summer, and I think fans will see more control and consistency from the Friday night starter this year.
Eric Walker will take the Sunday starter duties after returning from injury, which forced the sophomore to sit out all of 2018. Walker exhibited some of the best control on a 2017 Tiger staff that included the likes of LSU greats Jared Poche and Alex Lange. If Walker’s 2019 performance resembles anything like his freshman year, the Tigers will have a solid anchor in the Sunday role.
LSU will have a few options to choose from to fill the Saturday role in the starting pitching rotation, but Mainieri has already indicated that incoming freshman Landon Marceaux will be given the first shot at the job.
I foresee Matthew Beck, Caleb Gilbert, Ma’Khail Hilliard and Todd Peterson being the players that the Tigers rely on most out of the bullpen, and all have proven to be reliable options.
LSU’s hitting appears to be a bit foggier than the pitching staff, but even this area is anchored by veterans.
Outfielders Antoine Duplantis, Daniel Cabrera and Zach Watson will be staples in the Tigers’ lineup, and the return of junior Josh Smith after an injury-plagued 2018 certainly bodes well for the LSU offense.
However, LSU’s lineup is not without question marks. Junior college transfer Saul Garza suffered a knee injury in the fall and will begin the year at the DH position, leaving fellow JUCO transfer Brock Mathis to start the year behind the dish. While both are promising newcomers, fans won’t know what to expect until both see playing time at the Division I level.
Tiger fans will also have to wait on the first base battle to finish playing out as freshman Cade Beloso, C.J. Willis and Gavin Dugas will all compete for playing time.
Personally, I think the most important development to LSU’s offense in 2019 will be the potential improvement of infielders Hal Hughes and Brandt Broussard. Hughes and Broussard have proven their worth defensively, but both struggled at the plate last year hitting .221 and .260, respectively.
Hughes and Broussard will most likely be filling the eight and nine spots in LSU’s lineup, meaning that they’ll either be crucial to turning the lineup over to the bigger hitters or potential dead weight at the bottom of the order.
I think we’ll see both of these players take the role of the former instead of the latter as they grow more comfortable in their second seasons with the team.
Regardless of how this year’s LSU baseball team turns out, I’m confident that there are brighter days ahead for Louisiana sports. However, I also happen to believe that the 2019 installment of Tiger baseball will be a special one, and I have a strong feeling that there could be a 19th trip to Omaha on the horizon.