Feb. 15 will make 257 days since LSU lost to Oregon State in the 2018 NCAA Regional tournament, and 294 days since junior Josh Smith played shortstop for LSU.
Senior outfielder Antoine Duplantis, juniors Zach Watson and right-handed pitcher Zack Hess and sophomore right-handed pitcher Eric Walker are just a few who headline the returning stars.
They were all major keys in helping place LSU to become No. 1 preseason team — but Smith might have the most impact on the team. He was a 2017 All American for the Tigers during their charge to the College World Series championship game.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said it’s like the team has three recruiting classes with the traditional freshmen and junior college players, the drafted players returning and the returning injured players.
Smith missed the 2018 season with a back injury, only allowing him to play in six games. During his 2017 freshman season, Smith started 72 games at third base and was a key piece to the team’s College World Series run. He hit for a .281 batting average, seventh on the team with at least 130 at bats, and had a .409 slugging percentage, fifth on the team with at least 130 at bats.
Defensively, Smith played well for a young player at the hot corner. He made nine errors and had a fielding percentage of .947, right behind then-senior Kramer Robertson’s .963 fielding percentage. Mainieri said that third base is often overlooked and is a more difficult position to play than many people realize.
Smith’s experience in the College World Series will be a crucial part for their success this year. Understanding what it takes to succeed in the grind of the long season and every tournament leading up to the College World Series is something Smith can relay to the young players who make up important roles to the team, like he did as a freshman.
During the 2018 season, Smith transitioned to shortstop to take over after Robertson graduated. After injuring his back, Hal Hughes took over the position playing solid defense, but he struggled at the plate. Hughes hit for a .221 batting average, lowest on the team with at least 140 at bats.
“He kind of got thrown in there, and he handled himself a lot better than more people are going to give him credit for,” Smith said.
Shortstop is a position that needs consistency throughout the season. Producing both offensively and defensively at that position is vital for championship teams. During LSU’s World Series loss to Florida, the Gators junior shortstop Dalton Guthrie hit .273 and had a fielding percentage of .960. Oregon State’s 2018 junior shortstop Cadyn Grenier hit for a .319 average and had a .969 fielding percentage.
Smith looks to be the next shortstop to win a College World Series while contributing on both sides of the plate. A back injury is something that lingers and can derail a season. Houston Astros superstar shortstop Carlos Correa experienced that firsthand last year as a recurring back injury prevented him from staying in the lineup consistently, resulting in a down year for the young phenom.
Smith looks to bounce back after an entire year off of baseball. He is healthy and ready to begin the season on Feb. 15 against University of Louisiana Monroe.
“I’ve been feeling good,” Smith said. “I’ve been working pretty hard to get back, and I’m ready to get after it. I haven’t felt it since last year against Ole Miss, so it’s kind of in the past, trying to not let it sink in my head and everything and just kind of play baseball again.”