Dig Baton Rouge

Steady as he Goes

By Trey Mongrue
@TreyMongrue

Of course it was on Alex Bregman’s mind.

Standing in the on-deck circle during the eighth inning against Louisiana-Lafayette in the Wally Pontiff Classic, the LSU shortstop was a mere single away from hitting for the cycle.

With the speedy Jared Foster on first base, the even speedier Mark Laird at the plate, and one out, the chances of Bregman getting another at-bat were absurdly high. But it just wasn’t meant to be as Laird smoked a grounder straight for Ragin’ Cajuns second baseman Stefan Trosclair, igniting a 4-6-3 double play – just the second one Laird had grounded into all season.

Although the opportunity for the first cycle at LSU since Mikie Mahtook’s in 2010 crashed with that ground ball, Bregman sported a broad grin following his three-hit, four RBI night in the Tigers’ 8-6 win.

“I feel like every time I go up there, I’m going to put a good swing on the ball and I’m just feeling confident right now.”
– LSU shortstop Alex Bregman

“It’s been a while,” the junior laughed on getting multiple hits in a game.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri shared those sentiments.

“You can’t have bad luck when the ball goes over the outfield fence,” he said of Bregman’s sixth inning home run – the shortstop’s seventh of the season, tying him with Jared Foster for the team leader.

Bregman turned a Tuesday night spark into legitimate momentum in the weekend that followed. He pounded out six hits in the Tigers’ three game road sweep of Alabama to get back on track in Southeastern Conference play.

He even flirted with the cycle again on Saturday against the Crimson, missing only a home run. Through 32 games this season, he leads LSU in both RBI (31) and slugging percentage (.629). After a recent dip, his batting average is back up to a very respectable .333.

“This is the hardest I’ve hit the ball in my entire life,” said Bregman. “The numbers are whatever, it doesn’t matter. I feel like every time I go up there, I’m going to put a good swing on the ball and I’m just feeling confident right now.”

Still, it’s quite unimaginable just how cathartic these last four games have been for Bregman.

The bad luck that Mainieri refers to seemingly changed for Bregman with his 21st birthday, which fell a day before the Tigers met Louisiana-Lafayette. The weekend prior in a series against Kentucky, Bregman registered 14 plate appearances, put the ball in play 13 times, but only had two hits to show for it.

The balls put in play weren’t slow choppers or soft line drives, either. He was hitting balls hard, but it was almost as if they were magnetized towards the nearest Kentucky glove.

And with the Tigers’ most potent hitter and team leader seemingly snake-bitten, the Wildcats left Baton Rouge with two wins. After the dust settled that weekend, Bregman’s batting average was in danger of dropping below .300.

For anyone who had watched him hit in 2015, that statistic seemed criminal. Just ask first-year LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro who has been impressed by Bregman since his first day on the job.

“He’s a special player,” Cannizaro said. “The hardest part for a young hitter is doing everything he needs to do to get hits and they just aren’t falling.”

What Cannizaro and Mainieri liked the most is that, despite the trying times at the plate, Bregman’s topnotch defense at shortstop never dwindled.

But even then, was it frustrating for Bregman to be putting so many good swings on balls and not find grass?

He admits that it was trying at times. But he has also seen too much baseball to know that those things can quickly turn on a dime.

“It’s part of the game,” said Bregman, putting on his baseball philosopher hat. “You can square it up as hard as you can hit a ball and the pitcher will have his glove open and it will go right into it. Then sometimes you can hit a soft grounder and it’ll bounce over a dude’s head.

“It’s frustrating at times, but that’s the best part about baseball.”

Having been around Bregman for more than three years now, Mainieri knew things would eventually start working out. This isn’t the first time that the hits haven’t been falling.

After a freshman campaign in which Bregman helped LSU to the College World Series with a .369 average, 52 RBI and a team-high 59 runs scored, his sophomore season saw teams pitch him differently with the protection offered by Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz no longer present. Mainieri saw his shortstop fight out of that slump and expected a similar outcome this time around.

In addition to his presence a the plate, Bregman has been a steady hand at shortstop, committing just one error this season.
In addition to his presence a the plate, Bregman has been a steady hand at shortstop, committing just one error this season.

“I think the experience he went through last year has matured him a lot,” explained Mainieri. “Alex has seen it all and he knew that he had been swinging the bat well. If he had any bit of luck all year, he’d be hitting .380 right now and we’d be leading the nation in hitting by even more.”

Like Mainieri, it was never a doubt for Cannizaro – a guy who Bregman credits a great deal for the way he is seeing the ball this season.

“We talk all the time and I know he has a great head on his shoulders,” the LSU hitting coach said of Bregman. “We just talked about staying on course and to continue doing what he was doing.”

From the talk of Mainieri and Cannizaro, they both admit the obvious in that their veteran shortstop will be a surefire first-round pick once the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft rolls around after the college season concludes.

But don’t bring that up to Bregman, because like his opportunity to hit for the cycle, he’s thinking about the team ahead of himself. Right now, he and the rest of LSU have their sights set on helping LSU win many more games this season – starting this weekend when the Tigers host Auburn.

With luck seemingly back on Bregman’s side, along with his potent swing, LSU seems to be poised to make a run at Texas A&M for the SEC West crown.

“Our offense is rolling,” he said. “If we just keep playing games and swinging the bats this well, then the better we will be.”

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