Last season in Alex Box Stadium, a trio of seniors helped carry the Tigers to Omaha, Neb. – they combined for a .351 batting average, 20 home runs, 116 runs batted in, .433 on-base percentage and 16 saves.
First baseman Mason Katz, left fielder Raph Rhymes and closer Chris Cotton brought a number of tools to the program that turned them into fan favorites in Baton Rouge. All three were drafted into MLB organizations.
But when those same Tiger fans enter through the gates in Alex Box this season, they’ll be staring down at a squad teeming with youth. The 2014 Tigers have four seniors — half the number of seniors from the previous year.
Instead, 13 freshmen and six junior college transfers will fill the roster, and LSU coach Paul Mainieri is on the hunt for someone to be an emotional leader for the club.
As much as Rhymes and Katz brought to the club on offense, it did not compare to what they did off the field, according to Mainieri.
“There’s no question that Katz and Rhymes had two of the most formidable careers of any players who ever wore the Tigers uniform,” Mainieri said. “Their greatest value might have just been in their presence and their leadership among the team. Somebody is going to have to emerge and be those guys.”
Three of the four current LSU seniors — third baseman Christian Ibarra, designated hitter Sean McMullen and relief pitcher Nate Fury — all joined the program last season after transferring from JUCO.
The program may be without a veteran presence that has been with the program his entire career, but sophomores Alex Bregman and Mark Laird and junior “ace” Aaron Nola are all expected to jump into higher roles in the clubhouse.
Bregman said the responsibility doesn’t scare him.
“Being a leader on this team brings pressure, and we love that,” Bregman said. “Now that Mason and Raph are gone, we learned a lot about leadership from them. We’re embracing the leadership role, and we can’t wait to get on the field and show what this team is all about.”
In 2013, Bregman and Laird needed to mature quickly. Mainieri inserted the duo into the starting lineup on Opening Day — Laird batted in the two-hole with Bregman hitting behind him — and never looked back.
The duo combined for a .339 batting average, 70 RBIs and 107 runs scored in their debut season.
This year, a number of newcomers to the program — second basemen Conner Hale, Danny Zardon and Kramer Robertson, starting pitcher Jared Poche and reliever Brady Domangue — will be thrown into the fire early, but McMullen said he’s not worried about inexperience playing a factor.
“Last year, we had a bunch of seniors like Mason, Raph and Cotton who knew the ropes around here, and we learned that,” McMullen said. “I don’t think our freshmen are going to play like rookies. They’re really talented. Once we’re on the field, we don’t worry about who’s a rookie and who’s a veteran. We just get the job done.”