Despite a disappointing end to the season, the 2018 LSU baseball campaign shouldn’t be looked at as a failure, but rather a team that faced too many obstacles.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri knew this season would be difficult in replacing many veteran leaders but the added stress of reshuffling lineups due to injury didn’t help matters.
Heading into the season, the Tigers lost infielders Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman, their complete starting rotation in Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Eric Walker, a defensive wizard in catcher Michael Papierski and power slugger Greg Deichmann.
After the first series of the season, sophomore shortstop Josh Smith suffered a stress reaction in his back and played in only one other game the entire season.
Center fielder Zach Watson missed a month of the season with an oblique injury and pitcher Nick Storz made two appearances after being a coveted recruit in this year’s class.
JUCO junior and transfer Brandt Broussard was batting over .400 the first 20 plus games of the season, but a broken thumb held him out three weeks and when he returned, struggled to find his rhythm again, batting at .260 for the season.
The Tigers went 39-27 on the season and 15-15 in the SEC, good for a third place tie in the West division. Needing to perform well in the SEC tournament to ensure a spot in the NCAA tournament, the Tigers rattled off four wins in five days to advance to the SEC Championship before falling to Ole Miss.
With all the injuries and losses from the 2017 season, opportunity was gained for many younger and forgotten players on the LSU roster. Perhaps no light shined brighter than on freshman outfielder Daniel Cabrera.
Cabrera turned down $1 million from the pros to come to LSU and was sensational in the second half of the season. Cabrera earned a spot on the All-SEC freshman first team on his way to batting .315 with eight homeruns and 54 RBI.
LSU found another freshman gem in pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard who started 12 of his 17 appearances, going 9-5 with a 3.79 ERA. Hilliard along with fellow freshman AJ Labas, won a total of 15 games with Labas mainly used as the midweek starter.
The injury to Smith was certainly a huge blow to the LSU offense, but the Tigers reaped the rewards defensively with freshman Hal Hughes who took over the position. Hughes boasted a .957 fielding percentage even though he did struggle at the plate, batting .221 with 20 RBI in 65 games.
Senior Austin Bain may have been the story of the season as LSU looked for answers to fill out the infield. Many times, Mainieri has called Bain the MVP of the 2018 season for the Tigers as he played first base, second base and pitcher.
Bain got his chance in the fall when he started taking some swings and Mainieri liked what he saw, so he put Bain in the lineup where he batted in the three-hole much of the season. Bain batted .311 with three homeruns and 42 RBI on the season, not bad for someone who hadn’t picked up a bat since high school.
“We’re going to miss him terribly,” Mainieri said. “He showed everybody just what kind of a ball player he is and what a great competitor. Nobody loves LSU more than him, and I’m just really happy for Austin that, in his senior year, he did as much as he did.”
Fellow senior Beau and junior Bryce Jordan took on the responsibilities of being the vocal leaders of the team, and backed it up with their play. Beau spent most of his time as DH and left field while Bryce would play some at first and DH.
Beau hit .299 on the season with a team-tying eight homeruns in 63 games while Bryce hit .256 with 17 RBI in 37 appearances. The Jordans were hit by a combined 19 pitches, both leading the team. Despite graduating, Bryce has another year of eligibility after suffering a torn ACL before the 2017 season so one Jordan twin will be back in uniform next year.
LSU could be in jeopardy of losing the talents of Watson, Antoine Duplantis and Zack Hess, but none were selected on the second day of the MLB Draft.
Watson, despite missing a month of the season, returned and spent time as the leadoff and cleanup hitter after a sensational freshman season. The sophomore batted .308 and blasted seven home runs and 34 RBI in 57 games with Mainieri admitting it wasn’t quite the season he or Watson had expected.
The Tigers also returned reliable junior right fielder Duplantis. Duplantis, after a historic sophomore season where he drove in 61 batters and two home runs, delivered a very impressive junior campaign. Duplantis started all 66 games of the season, the only player to do so, and batted .328 with two homeruns and 48 RBI.
“I'm not sure what's going to happen with Antoine, but if that's the last game that Antoine's played for LSU, he'll go down in history as one of the greatest of all time," Maineri said after the regional loss to Oregon State. “If he wants to come back for his senior year, I'll be glad to have him, and he may go down as the greatest player of all time.”
Much like Watson, Hess showed flashes of the superstar pitcher he can be, but didn’t sustain the level of consistency on the mound he hoped for. Hess threw a team leading 107 strikeouts on his way to a 7-6 record and 5.05 ERA. Control of the fastball was an issue as Hess frequently found himself in high pitch counts early in games.
LSU is hoping all three will return to the program next season with a healthier and improved roster on the horizon.
The 2018 season certainly had its moments whether it was Josh Smith’s go-ahead homerun on opening night, or Beau Jordan’s grandslam on senior night that secured a 7-5 win over Alabama. Maybe it was pitcher Todd Peterson’s double in extra innings that helped LSU defeat South Carolina 6-4 in the SEC tournament.
One thing you can say about the LSU program is that every season is unique in its own way, despite the outcome of the season.