Since stepping onto LSU’s campus last August, Conner Hale has been asked to do a little bit of everything by head coach Paul Mainieri.
With two weeks of the 2014 baseball season already in the books, the junior infielder has already seen multiple games at both second and first base – two positions he had never regularly played before coming to LSU. On top of that, Hale was recently promoted to the clean up spot in the batting order.
For a player that has only been with the team for a handful of months, that may seem like a lot of responsibility to take on. However, Hale is doing a fantastic job of not showing any stress.
It is almost as if that he was meant to have such an expansive role.
“It doesn’t really affect me that much,” he said. “I feel really comfortable with everything that I’ve been asked to do and I’ll do whatever I can to help this team win games.”
The Tigers entered 2014 having to replace many key contributors from last year’s squad that made a College World Series appearance. Because of that, there have been some growing pains, such as this past week when the Tigers dropped their first midweek game since 2011 at the hands of Louisiana-Lafayette.
But Hale has made the transition that much smoother for Mainieri.
“I’m not surprised at all, we brought him in because we thought he was a good ball player,” Mainieri said of Hale. “I expected him to be good.”
Hale has been one of Mainieri’s most important bats in the line up. Through 11 games this season, the junior from New Port Richey, Fla. has knocked in seven runs, scored just as many and is batting .389. On defense he has been just as solid, not committing an error despite having to concentrate on two positions.
“I’m happy that I’ve gotten off to such a great start,” said Hale. “It has been the time of my life so far.”
Every practice, Hale arrives at Alex Box Stadium with two gloves – his regular glove and a first base mitt – so that he can work both at both second and first base.
The funny thing is, Mainieri never had plans for Hale to play on the right side of the infield. The original plan was for Hale to be LSU’s hot corner.
“We thought that he would play third base,” explained Mainieri who recruited Hale as contingency plan had current third baseman Christian Ibarra left for professional baseball after last season.
“When Ibarra came back, that changed some things.”
Hale spent his first two years of college baseball at the junior college level with the State College of Florida Manatees, the same place that produced former-LSU closer Nick Goody.
Mainieri first received word of Hale’s ability when assistant coach Javi Sanchez went down to Brandeton, Fla. for a SCF game in 2012. But at the time, Sanchez was there to watch not to watch Hale, rather his teammate, Tyler Rocklein.
Hale quickly rectified that.
“They came down my freshman year, but were looking at another player on my team and I happened to stand out in that game,” recalled Hale. “Ever since then, me and Coach Javi kept in contact.”
In his first year as SCF, Hale batted .330 and tallied 40 runs batted in.
The ensuing fall, he had his first chance to show Mainieri what he could do when the Manatees came to Alex Box Stadium for a junior college tournament.
“We loved him when we saw him,” said Mainieri. “We didn’t offer him right away only because we didn’t know how many spots we had that were open.”
While the talks with Sanchez were nice, Hale still did not know that much about LSU and if this was a place where he would want his baseball career to take the next step. That quickly changed when, after one of SCF’s games in the tournament, Hale toured LSU’s baseball facilities with Mainieri as part of an unofficial visit.
“I knew they were looking at me, but I didn’t know how serious they were,” Hale said. “But when I came here for the tournament, they took me on an unofficial visit and showed me around the stadium and everything.
“I was in shock, it was amazing,” he continued. “I wasn’t that big on their history until they started talking to me, but then I got really into it. It caught my attention very quickly.”
Hale used the momentum from his freshman season to perform even better as a sophomore, hitting .366 with 65 RBI and 23 extra base hits to earn the Suncoast Conference Player of the Year Award.
On LSU’s end, Ibarra’s bat and glove had Mainieri thinking that LSU would need a new third baseman for the 2014 season.
“We kind of dragged him along a little bit, telling him we’d make a decision once we had a better feel for Ibarra,” Mainieri explained. “Once we thought that we’d lose Ibarra, that’s when we offered him.”
Hale quickly committed and made the move to Baton Rouge for the fall semester. However, Ibarra was not drafted until the 32nd round of the MLB Draft and opted to return to LSU for his senior season.
When Mainieri opened fall practice, Hale instead found himself playing first base. He fared well at that spot, but after practice commenced Mainieri approached him about making yet another adjustment.
“He called me over Christmas break and he told me that he wanted to me out at second base, so I quickly started that transition,” said Hale. “He’s just trying to find the best nine players that he can play.”
Hale’s move over to second was not meant to be an indictment of the two freshmen, Kramer Robertson and Danny Zardon, that were splitting time there during the Fall. Mainieri just was not ready to throw them into the fire just yet.
Even though it was a new position for him, Hale looked like a natural on opening night against New Orleans when he made a diving stop on a ground ball and later turned a double play.
“I just started to feel that maybe we should see Hale over there and see how he does,” Mainieri said. “I think he has looked fantastic, to be honest. He could play second base in every game and I wouldn’t lose an ounce of sleep over it.”
Robertson has since emerged as an option at second base, allowing for Hale to see some time back at first.
But regardless of where he plays, Hale is just happy to be playing and that has been evident with the way that he has started the season. Although still a new face on the LSU scene, Hale has already provided a lot for the Tigers.
It has not fazed him yet and he doesn’t think it ever will.
“It has helped my confidence a lot,” he said of everything that has happened to him since coming to LSU. “Hopefully, I can keep it going.”