Optimistic Johnson welcomes revamped LSU baseball team back to campus

TIGERS’ GREAT 8:  As the LSU baseball team returned to classes Monday for the first time since winning the College World Series, Bossier City senior catcher Hayden Travinski was awarded the team’s coveted No. 8 jersey for his leadership and dedication. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — If there is one thing that never changes for Jay Johnson, head coach of LSU’s college baseball 2023 national champions, it’s he’s constantly thinking about “next.”

Next pitch. Next inning. Next pitching change. Next batting order. Next bullpen move. Next lineup shift because of injuries. Next recruiting class. Next year’s roster. Next coaching staff.

Because when “next” becomes “now” – like the Tigers early last year losing their top three relievers to season-ending injuries before a revamped bullpen eventually boosted LSU  to 11 wins in 13 NCAA tourney games for the program’s national title No. 7 – Johnson wants to be prepared.

He believes he’s got a good jump on next season as LSU prepares to defend the title after losing six of its top seven hitters including No. 2 overall MLB draft choice Dylan Crews and two starting pitchers including No. 1 overall MLB draft pick Paul Skenes.

“I really like what we’ve assembled, there’s a blend,” Johnson said at a Monday press conference on the first day of classes for the fall semester. “There are a few (returning position players) guys that were key parts of that (national championship) run.

“Then, there’s a grouping (of players) that were also key parts at a point during the (last) season where it’s now time for them to take a step forward. I’m excited to dig into that next phase with the Brady Neals, the Paxton Klings, and the Jared Jones’ of the world.

“And then we tried to supplement what we needed with the high school (recruiting) class and the portal.”

Even before the conclusion of the College World Series, Johnson was plucking the first of six transfer portal standouts including Alabama’s top pitcher Luke Holman, Arizona’s All-Pac 12 outfielder Mac Bingham, South Carolina starting shortstop Michael Braswell III and All-Big East reliever Justin Loer of Xavier.

Four days after LSU pounded Florida 18-4 to win the national championship, Johnson hired two-time National Pitching Coach of the Year Nate Yeskie from Texas A&M to replace Wes Johnson. Johnson parlayed his one season with the Tigers into being named Georgia’s head coach.

Also, Johnson hired one-time LSU pitching coach and former UCF head coach Terry Looney on July 12 in the newly created position of associate director of program development and recruiting.

Johnson had exit interviews with all his players. He paid particular attention to “re-recruiting” prospective veteran returnees he considered invaluable, such as catcher Hayden Travinski of Bossier City and an Airline High alumnus. He’s someone Johnson badly wanted to return to the Tigers as a fifth-year senior if wasn’t drafted in the top five rounds of July’s MLB draft.

Last season once he was healthy in the final two months the season, he went on a tear. He played in 41 games (23 starts), batting .356 (37-for-104) with five doubles, 10 homers, 30 RBI and 30 runs scored.  

“You could make an argument that outside of Dylan Crews, from the end of the SEC schedule through, the SEC tournament, the Regional, the Super Regional, there was not a more valuable player on our team,” said Johnson of Travinski, who didn’t get drafted possibly because of history of injuries. “I think he feels like his best baseball at LSU is still in him. Like what we saw over that six-week period, I think he like to put together a full season like that, because he hasn’t really had the opportunity to do that.”  

When LSU released its roster Monday, Travinski got a very special honor. He has a new jersey number – 8, given each season to “an upperclassman who exemplifies the spirit of LSU baseball through his leadership and dedication to the program,” and worn in each of the past two seasons by Gavin Dugas.  

“Just as a couple weeks ago, he sent me some video of him swinging the bat and said, `I’m so fired up about how this turned out.’ And that’s the way you want. You want them to be excited and look at this as an opportunity,” said Johnson.  

The Tigers’ coach sweated whether his highest rated freshmen signees, pitcher Cameron Johnson of IMG Academy and shortstop Steven Milam of Las Cruces (N.M.) Centennial High, would stick with the Tigers if they were chosen in July’s major league draft.  

Stunningly, they both honored their commitment to sign with LSU.  

“The longer I do this, I think you can’t undervalue the family’s approach to how they value college and education, and we use Cameron Johnson as an example,” Johnson said of the 6-6, 240-pound lefty. “The one thing I overlooked is the multiple times that he and his family came down here. They really wanted him to go to college and they really wanted to come to LSU and play for us. I was a little bit dismissive of it only because of how I viewed his talent.”  

Milam, who batted .627 with 50 RBIs this past season as the 2023 Gatorade New Mexico Player of the Year, also didn’t waver at draft time.  

“In December, I flew to Las Cruces and met with him and his family,” Johnson said. “To their credit, they stuck to stuck to their guns.  

“He’s a switch hitter can play short and can play second. He’s a baseball player through and through. Very heady player and he’ll adjust well to this level. His competitiveness is off the charts.”

The Tigers began on Monday 45 days of strength and conditioning for the 46-player roster. They open their 45-day fall practice on Oct. 5, highlight by practice games at McNeese on Nov. 5, at home on Nov. 12 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette and at home for the Purple-Gold intrasquad scrimmage Nov. 18-19-20.

Contact Ron at ronhigginsmedia@gmail.com