Much of the preseason chatter surrounding the LSU baseball squad centered on the addition of three left handed hitting outfielders who would change the identity of the offense and defensive outfield.
Freshmen Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson along with junior college transfer Sean McMullen figured to provide a fresh set of skills foreign to the team that took the field last June against Stony Brook.
It was easy to forget LSU had that player in the dugout that day. He was just wearing a neck brace and had been since colliding with the outfield wall at Auburn on March 25
After a summer of rehabilitation and rest to recover from a fractured vertebrae, Sciambra rejoined his team with a purpose. After winning the leadoff and centerfield spots last season, he would have to reprove his worth to Head Coach Paul Mainieri.
“I wondered how (Sciambra) would handle it, especially coming off the injury,” Mainieri said. “Chris is just the consummate team player, but he’s also a very self-confident kid. I do believe he approached it like he was going to do the very best that he could every day. If it was good enough to be a starting player then it would show. If it wasn’t, he would support the team and be a reserve outfielder.”
Having not played baseball in six months, Sciambra took to the field in the fall. Day in and day out he faced the stingy Tiger pitching staff, one not so hospitable to a player trying to rediscover a hitting stroke that appeared to be coming on prior to the injury.
“I really did feel like last year at the time I got hurt I was starting to hit my stride," Sciambra said. "Our pitchers in the fall really get us ready. After facing them all fall, there’s nothing we haven’t seen.”
At the conclusion of fall practice, Sciambra had positioned himself as one of the leaders to take over one of the open outfield spots in right and centerfield. Raph Rhymes figured to have the left field spot nailed down after leading college baseball in hitting in 2013.
Still, Laird proved he belonged as well, making things difficult on defenses with his blazing speed. Stevenson showed he may have been the best defensive outfielder on the squad. McMullen, who hit .452 at Delgado Community College last year, displayed he possessed the most pop in his bat.
Sciambra’s physical tools alone appeared to have him running fourth in the race, but baseball has a way of catering to baseball players as opposed to athletes more often than not.
The Catholic High School product followed up his fall with a strong spring and made Mainieri’s choice an easy one.
“He’s clearly won the job,” Mainieri said. “He should be an every day player because he does something different than any of the other guys do. He may not run as fast as those guys, but he goes deeper into counts and hits with two strikes. He’s just a great table setter for us.”
For that reason, Mainieri inserted Sciambra into the leadoff spot for opening night after tentatively scribbling Laird there about two weeks prior to first pitch.
Sciambra made yet another statement by collecting four of LSU’s nine hits Friday night and scoring the lone run of the game. In all, Sciambra has reached 12 times in four games.
The little lefty is hitting a team best .583, but there’s more to hitting leadoff than collecting hits and getting on base. Five of his seven hits have come with two strikes, so opposing arms are unloading the entire arsenal to work on Sciambra as the two freshmen behind him, Laird and shortstop Alex Bregman, watch intently to soak up information during their transition to collegiate baseball.
“I think Mark and I are really back-to-back leadoff hitters,” Sciambra said. “We’re really the same type of player. I think that if we play the way that we can, that’s two base runners and the other guys can collect the RBI.”
Two leadoff hitters? Last season LSU struggled to find one.
Mainieri tried Arby Fields, Austin Nola and JaCoby Jones in the leadoff spot in 2012 but couldn’t find a consistent presence to set the table for Rhymes and Mason Katz.
Four games hardly qualifies as a solution to the problem, but it doesn’t hurt.
“That’s huge, having a guy like that who is going to battle and not strike out a lot,” Katz said. “If pitchers come out here and walk the leadoff hitter, you got a guy (Laird) who can beat out a ground ball and then you’ve got two on with Bregman, Raph and me coming up. That’s dangerous.”