BATON ROUGE — The LSU baseball team isn’t lacking experience.
The trio of star players in Zack Hess, Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson all opted to return to school despite being taken in last year’s MLB Draft. Then there are the pair of former starters from the 2017 national runner-up team in shortstop Josh Smith and pitcher Eric Walker who are coming back after missing most or all of last season due to injury.
But what could decide whether LSU returns to Omaha for the College World Series this season could be how the inexperienced Tigers perform.
LSU signed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country last year, the fourth time the Tigers earned that distinction since head coach Paul Mainieri took over as the team’s skipper.
More than a few of those 13 players will need to contribute in big ways in 2019, and it starts at first base where four freshmen have been competing during camp to earn the starting role.
Those four freshman are Cade Beloso (John Curtis), Gavin Dugas (Houma Christian), C.J. Willis (Ruston) and Drew Bianco (Oxford, Miss.). The only one to actually play first base in high school is Beloso while Bianco and Dugas were infielders and Willis played catcher.
“It is weird that we are best friends and all live together so it is a little wierd,” said Bianco, whose father is former LSU catcher and current Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco. “But at the end of the day I mean... my dad always said no one is miserable in Omaha. So even if you are not playing, even if you are just in the bullpen catching you are still happy.
“Everybody wants to play, everybody wants to be an All-American, but if you’re winning, that’s all that matters. ”
Mainieri said this past week that Bianco was the leader to earn the starting job for Friday’s season opener against UL Monroe.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be playing time for the other freshmen.
Giovanni DiGiacomo is expected to get plenty of playing time as the Tigers’ fourth outfielder while Willis has versatility that could get him on the field.
Willis is listed on the roster as a first baseman-outfielder-catcher.
“It is baseball,” Willis said. “We just come out here everyday and work hard and compete against each other. You just try to not make anything big out of it. You just come out here and play baseball.
“I just have to take advantage of the opportunity that is given to me.”
This freshman class also is heavy on arms as more than half of the signees are pitchers: Landon Marceaux (Destrehan), Jaden Hill (Ashdown, Ark.), Cole Henry (Florence, Ala.), Will Ripoll (John Curtis), Chase Costello (Pompano Beach, Fla.), Riggs Threadgill (Fredericksburg, Texas), Rye Gunter (Coppell, Texas) and Easton McMurray (Bakersfield, Calif.).
Marceaux appears to be the leader in getting the most playing time as Maineiri said at Media Day that the in-state product was penciled in as the team’s Saturday starter.
So does the young man feel the pressure of starting for the No. 1-ranked team in the country?
“Depending on how you take pressure as a specific person,” Marceaux said.
“The way I take pressure it is still baseball. You know? Don’t try to make it bigger than it is.
“Find a way to calm yourself down and work through it. Added pressure could really good for us. Could make us work a little more harder than we normally would.”
What may be helping the heralded group of freshman is how the veteran players instantly mentored them as soon as they arrived on campus last fall.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Willis said. “They have taken everyone underneath the wings especially during the tough times throughout the fall. They really picked us up when we were down. It has made a huge difference for all of us.”