On a frosty 2007 February night at Alex Box Stadium, Paul Mainieri filled out his first lineup card as the head coach at LSU.
Three of the first five names he wrote down were suiting up for their first collegiate game. Jared Mitchell, Blake Dean and Sean Ochinko collaborated on a 3-for-11 evening as the Tigers nipped St. Mary’s 4-3.
That night, Mainieri didn’t have a choice but to plug freshmen in right away. His roster was a far cry from the Skip Bertman years and actually appeared much further than two years from winning a College World Series of his own.
His freshmen were the best players on that 29-26-1 team.
Friday night, Mainieri will pen freshman Alex Bregman’s name on the first lineup card of the 2013 season, and in doing so will bump the nation’s leading hitter Raph Rhymes and the SEC’s returning leader in home runs Mason Katz’ down a slot.
There were other options, but Mainieri dubbed the rookie his guy.
“I'm putting a lot on this kid's shoulders.” Mainieri said at media day. “He will be our three-hole hitter and starting shortstop as a true freshman, that is a lot, but I think this kid can handle it. I have no doubt he can handle it.”
Since that night at Alex Box Stadium only four freshmen have started on opening night for Mainieri, D.J. LeMahieu and Leon Landry in 2008 and JaCoby Jones and Ty Ross in 2011.
It doesn’t happen often.
Bregman is a special case. As a high school senior he broke a bone in his hand and missed much of his final season at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico. Professional scouts continued to monitor him, but he insisted that only a first round selection would pry him from his commitment to LSU.
The first round came and went, and so did the second. Teams, realizing that Bregman was now highly unlikely to sign a professional contract, passed on the supremely talented prep prospect until finally the Boston Red Sox gave him a go in the 29th round.
True to his word, Bregman shunned the Red Sox and enrolled at LSU back in August.
“Playing at LSU is a lifelong dream,” Bregman said. “I’m so excited to be here and be wearing the purple and gold. I came here on my official visit, and I just loved the people here, the fans, the coaches, the greatest teammates in the world. I just wanted to come here and win a national championship.”
When Bregman trots out to shortstop Friday night, it’ll mark his first start there in an LSU uniform. He’ll only have to make 218 more to catch he predecessor Austin Nola. The fifth round selection of the Miami Marlins, Nola left his legacy as one of the greatest defensive players to play at LSU.
Bregman understands the shoes he’s filling. In fact, he received some guidance from Nola before spring training summoned the former Tiger out east.
“I know he’s a great player,” Bregman said of Nola. “He’s a tremendous role model. He had a great career here, and he’s just a great friend now.”
It’s a good thing Bregman is able to meet friends on the diamond, because the word is that he doesn’t spend much time anywhere else.
In just six months, Bregman has developed a reputation as a tireless worker and relentless competitor.
“One night in late November, we had already finished fall practice, we had our weight workout and conditioning workout during the day, and he came over later in the day at dusk because he wanted to take some ground balls,” Mainieri said. “Everyone was gone except a student manager and they didn't have a key to turn the lights on, so he went out there and took ground balls in the dark. That is how he is.”
That type of grinding mentality makes it easy to fit in with a new group of players. On a team stocked with eight seniors and proven juniors like Ty Ross, JaCoby Jones and Ryan Eades, it takes that type of effort to stand out in the crowd.
Of course, a little bit more digging into the story proves that it wasn’t dinner date or a video gaming session that Bregman interrupted to take some infield.
“I think I was actually studying when he texted me and asked to go take ground balls, and I said I could definitely use a break from studying,” Katz said. “I said, ‘I can barely see you at shortstop,’ and he said, ‘if I can field them in the dark then I will be able to field them during the day.’”
Mainieri doesn’t expect the elite level defense that Nola provided on a nightly basis, but his hope is that Bregman’s offense will make up for his continued growth as a shortstop.
During the fall, Jones, junior Christian Ibarra and Bregman all got their chance to grab the starting duties there. Bregman stated his case more cleanly than the other two who will start at second base and third base, respectively.
"If I were to rate Bregman (defensively), I would give him a seven and a half right now,” Mainieri said. “He is a really good shortstop, and he is getting better. He is very coachable. I love his enthusiasm. I love his athleticism. He has a strong accurate arm and he has good hands. He just needs to play more.”
Bregman won’t have to wait for that.