By Trey Mongrue
Throughout his eight-year tenure as the head baseball coach at LSU, Paul Mainieri has taken the Tigers to the College World Series on three occasions. A theme from all three of those runs to Omaha, Neb. has been the impact provided by a freshman outfielder.
In 2008, it was Leon Landry and his acrobatic leaping and diving catches that helped end a four-year CWS drought. A year later, Mikie Mahtook’s clutch bat and fiery mentality brought home LSU’s sixth national championship. And just last season, Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird made it nearly impossible for any opposing team to hit a fly ball to right or center field and expect it to drop for a hit.
Only time – and a successful postseason run – will tell if the next addition to that fraternity will be LSU freshman left fielder Jake Fraley.
“It’s a bit early to start trying to compare him to those other guys,” said Mainieri.
But with each passing game and each LSU win that has been influenced by Fraley’s play in some way, it is getting harder and harder for his head coach to contain some enthusiasm.
“It’s been pretty exciting watching him grow,” Mainieri said of Fraley. “He’s a good ballplayer that kid, and he just keeps getting better.”
Fraley added to what has been a rapidly growing list of clutch hits Last Friday during the Tigers series opener with Tennessee. Trailing 7-6 with two outs and Sean McMullen on second base in the eighth inning, the young freshman jumped on a fastball from Volunteer reliever Josh Peterson and belted it into the left centerfield gap for a game-tying RBI double.
“It was just a matter of staying mentally strong and knowing your role in that situation,” explained Fraley who went 3-for-5 that night with an RBI and two runs scored. “He gave me a fastball and he left it so I was able to get the barrel on it and shoot it left centerfield.”
Fraley’s heroics paved way for a Laird walk-off single an inning later which set the tone for the weekend as the Tigers took two of three from Tennessee and moved to just a half game back of Ole Miss and Alabama for the SEC Western Division lead.
That is prime position for the Tigers, who found themselves at the bottom of the West just a month ago following a sweep at the hands of Florida. Considering that it was immediately after that series when Fraley started getting much more playing time, it might be no coincidence that LSU has won nine of its last 12 SEC games.
“At this point, I just feel blessed that I have been able to go out there and play as much as I have.” – LSU freshman outfielder Jake Fraley
“He has the most confidence out of anybody on our team and he is a competitor,” said Laird. “Seeing how he keeps coming through for us in clutch situations, he just continues to amaze everyone when he is at the plate.”
In 14 conference games and seven starts this season, Fraley leads all LSU players that have registered more than 30 at bats with a .333 average and is second to only Andrew Stevenson with 8 RBI.
However, he is making sure to not let this recent string of success go to his head.
“The game of baseball,” he explained, “is going to come back and bite you in the butt if you don’t stay humble.”
The thing is, before this season even started, Fraley had already been served a large slice of humble pie.
Coming down to Louisiana all the way form Middletown, Delware where, at Caravel Academy, he had a junior season where he hit for a .536 average, which earned him All-State and All-American honors. Recruited by hitting coach Javi Sanchez since 2011, Fraley committed to LSU as part of its 2013 recruiting class and joined the team for fall practices last September.
Brimming with confidence, Fraley’s plan was to compete for a starting job in the outfield right away. However, as he does before the start of every fall practice, Mainieri gathered the freshmen and warned them that they will face many ups and downs.
For Fraley those downs came during the early part of the fall scrimmages when he realized first hand just how hard it is to make contact on a pitch thrown by Aaron Nola and the rest of the LSU pitchers.
“Everyone of us had the mindset of coming in and having a great fall and get on that opening day lineup card,” Fraley recalled. “But once you go about halfway through the fall and have played 15 or 16 games in the matter of two and a half weeks, you begin to realize what it takes to play here.”
Those struggles quickly had him questioning his talent and worth as a baseball player.
“I started second guessing myself,” he explained. “I wondered if I was really supposed to be here or if I could handle it.”
At that point, it could have been very easily for Fraley to get lost in the shuffle considering LSU was already loaded with outfield depth. After working on his game back home in Middleton during the winter break, Fraley reported back to LSU for the preseason practices.
Mainieri quickly noticed a difference from the player he saw three months prior.
“He showed great composure at the plate,” said Mainieri. “He didn’t seem to get rattled and it just didn’t seem like any situation was too big for him.”
Fraley attributes the difference to just slowing the game down and its something that he has made sure to do in each game he has played in sense.
“In high school, you didn’t really have to slow the game,” explained Fraley. “But, in college, it’s the single most important thing that you have to. Playing as a freshman, you can easily let everything fly by and not have the right mindset.”
Now seemingly firmly entrenched in the starting lineup, Fraley has his focuses set on finishing out this last month of the regular season strong. The Tigers travel to Texas A&M this weekend for a three game set with the Aggies before coming back to Baton Rouge to host Alabama in a series that may ultimately decide the SEC West.
If the Tigers want to capture their third straight division crown, as well as make some noise in the postseason, the chances are that they will need Fraley to come through in more big moments.
The good news is that he continues to be ready.
“Whenever I get the chance, I’m going to give it a hundred and ten percent,” said Fraley. “At this point, I just feel blessed that I have been able to go out there and play as much as I have.”