Recruiting often garners the label of the “lifeblood” of a collegiate athletic program.
Stockpiling talent and fitting the pieces to the puzzle are two different chores, but accomplishing both creates great teams and elite programs. Most coaches readily admit that scouring the high school ranks for players that ultimately becomes pillars of the program takes priority, but the junior colleges are there to complement that endeavor and ultimately complete the proverbial puzzle.
So for every Mikie Mahtook, Austin Nola or Ryan Eades that Paul Mainieri has hauled in from high school, he’s also found fits like Matt Clark, Derek Helenihi or Joey Bourgeois at the junior college level to complete the club.
This year, the Tigers entered the season in search of a new left side of the infield as well as a player to set the table at the top of the order, a spot that no Tiger occupied with any regularity last season.
As this Tiger team turns the corner and enters the final stretch of the regular season, the left side of the infield and the leadoff spot are solidified perhaps beyond what Mainieri could have envisioned thanks to a pair of JUCO signees-- Christian Ibarra and Sean McMullen.
After a rocky fall that continued into the early spring, McMullen made his push when March turned to April. Fall now seems like a distant memory.
“I’d say (McMullen’s fall) was a little disappointing just because he wasn’t consistent,” Mainieri said. “He showed flashes. He just didn’t maintain it on a consistent basis.”
McMullen, who hit a balmy .452 at Delgado Community College en route to All-America honors, just needed some to elevate his game to the level of his new competition. Mainieri points to another adjustment for the former Brother Martin standout.
“His coach at Delgado, Joe Sherman, is a little bit more laid back than I am,” Mainieri said. “I’m a little more intense and demanding and on top of the little things. I think it confused him a little bit. He didn’t really know what to make of me and how to satisfy me. He struggled with it all fall.”
Ibarra needed no such time. He embraced the atmosphere at Alex Box Stadium and came out of the blocks swing the bat. While many of his teammates have enjoyed exceptional highs and humbling lows this year, Ibarra continues to hit more consistently than perhaps any of them, hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of .350 all season, not much higher or lower.
When Mainieri and his staff brought Ibarra on, the assumption was that he’d play excellent defense and struggle at the plate. Nothing new for the diminutive Ibarra.
“Every first year, even in high school, they put me at ninth in the order,” Ibarra said. “As the season went on my freshman year, they put me at second. After that I hit third for three years. My freshman year of JUCO, he didn’t think I could hit either, so he put me at ninth for half the season. He moved me up to second the rest of the year and then I hit third my second year.”
Mainieri saw enough in the fall to know Ibarra wasn’t a ninth place hitter, but he did plug Ibarra in to the seventh spot. After a few weeks, it became apparent that Ibarra was a run producer, but that he also could provide protection to key cogs in the order like Katz and Raph Rhymes.
Multiple times this season Ibarra has punished teams for walking one of the two seniors to get to him, Saturday yanking a three-run double down the line in left to begin the merciless beating of Florida.
On the other side of the heart of the order, McMullen continues to get on base and even do his part to drive in some runs. He spearheaded a Game 1 win at Arkansas by walking three times and cracking his first home run. He drove in three runs that night.
Mainieri eased McMullen in against right handed pitching, but it took little time to realize that left handers struggled to retire McMullen as well. In fact, McMullen leads the Tigers in hitting against left handers at over .400, a rarity for left handed hitters.
So for a lineup that returned five starters from last season’s Super Regional, a pair of the missing pieces have been found.
“Most people think of our team in terms of (Alex) Bregman, Katz, Rhymes, (Ty) Ross and (JaCoby) Jones,” Mainieri said. “Nobody seems to talk about Ibarra and McMullen.
“I have a lot of junior college roots, being the son of a coach that coached in junior college for 30 years,” Mainieri said. “I think junior college players are very valuable players. When we go recruit a player, we don’t really think in terms of he’s a one year or a two year guy. We just think he’s a good baseball player.”
When the LSU Tigers board the bus for College Station, Tx., on Wednesday, many of them will leave school behind, at least until the fall.
Final exams conclude this weekend at LSU, so this week many of the Tigers have missed some practice time in order to knock out what’s left of their curriculum.
“We practiced (Monday) night, and about three quarters of the team was there,” Mainieri said. “There are a handful of guys won’t be here (Tuesday). Obviously the priority this week is academics.”
A handful of Tigers will take a final exam on line Thursday morning before an 8:00 pm series opener with Texas A&M, and there are a few others who have one more to complete Monday morning. In any case, the finish line is near in that regard. Once that obstacle is cleared, it’s just baseball.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Katz said. “You can just wake up whenever you want, come to the field and just work, work, work. We come here to get away from school during the year. Now we can come here and relax. All ball. Nothing else to worry about.”
Of course as Katz puts the closing touches on his academic career at LSU Wednesday evening, he also realizes that the athletic side of things coincides.
“My last time I went to campus was on Monday, and I was thinking, ‘wow, this is the last time I have to step on a campus, this is great.’” Katz said. “But when I was leaving I was like, ‘this kind of sucks. I can’t play baseball here anymore after this year is over.’
“I’ll take classes if I could play here every day, but unfortunately the NCAA won’t give me any more eligibility.”
Katz and his fellow baseball graduates will hold a ceremony in the Champions Club at Alex Box Stadium next weekend because the official ceremony takes place while LSU takes on Ole Miss that day.
While that closes a chapter, the end of classes starts another, one Mainieri can sense.
“By the time we get to College Station (Wednesday), the energy level will be up,” Mainieri said. “Once they are finished, it’s all ball.”