Jones talks move to center field

JaCoby Jones talks about taking over center field after Mikie Mahtook left for the pros and what the teams' attitude is like with Opening Day right around the corner.

During LSU Baseball Media Day on Friday, coach Paul Mainieri talked shop with the local media for nearly an hour, making a final gripe about missing the 2011 NCAA Tournament before sharing his two cents on the starting lineup and pitching rotation.

A handful of times in between, Mainieri talked about the gut check of losing Mikie Mahtook - who left Baton Rouge after being tops on the 2011 team in batting average (.383), triples (5), runs (61), home runs (14) and RBI (56).

Then there was Mahtook's heart, the one thing that can't be measured or tracked through stats.

How does a team replace that sort of talent, one that is defined through production from all angles?

"You can't," said senior Tyler Hanover, who arrived at LSU alongside Mahtook in 2008. "No one can really compare to Mikie. Mikie is Mikie.

"But, JaCoby will be JaCoby."

That would be JaCoby Jones, Mahtook's replacement in centerfield and heir-apparent to the go-to-guy role that No. 8 became over his three years in purple-and-gold.

"It's going to be very hard to fill Mahtook's shoes," Jones said. "He was a face of LSU. But I feel like I have good athleticism and knowledge of the game. I think I am ready for it."

Jones admitted he wouldn't have spoken with the same confidence at this time last year.

Despite being named the 2010 Mississippi High School Player of the Year, there was some growing that Jones needed to do.

And given Jones batted .338 during his freshman campaign, the needed change wasn't necessarily from a production standpoint.

"Jacoby Jones is a freak of nature," Hanover said. "This kid can absolutely run, he can absolutely hit with a lot of power, and he can run them down in the outfield."

The transformation has come through maturation, a leap in the right direction that the Richton, Miss., native made a priority during the offseason.

"What I have liked about him in the last few months is seeing the maturity he is developing," Mainieri said. "Last year was a big adjustment for him coming out of a small school in Mississippi. Now he's facing SEC pitching, and you start to have to deal with more failure than you are used to."

For Jones, the frustration began to shine through.

"Sometimes it's hard for young kids to react to that failure," Mainieri said. "Sometimes it takes a while for kids to grow up and find their way. There is one traffic light in his hometown. It's a big adjustment for him. I've seen him grow up, and I think he's destined for something really good.

"I think Jones really is coming into his own. Now he is growing up and understanding the way the game."

That's needed news for the Tigers, who have the firepower in the weekend rotation but are doing some soul-searching for an identity at the plate.

"When you look at our lineup, you see a team that maybe doesn't have the athleticism we had back in (2009) when we had Jared Mitchell, D.J. LeMahieu, and Ryan Schimpf, guys that could really run and have power," Mainieri said. "What you are going to see out of this lineup is a very hard-nosed, gritty, tough approach.

"Jones is the one exception to that. Jones has the capabilities of being, like Mikie, a first-round draft pick. He's just got a phenomenal athletic ability about him."

After a summer spent in the Cape Cod League was cut short after 15 games because of a shoulder injury, Jones returned to Baton Rouge and began working with hitting coach Javi Sanchez, who circled patience as a needed virtue for Jones during his sophomore campaign.

"I am very aggressive in the box," Jones said. "If I see a first pitch close to the zone, I am going to swing at it.

"I worked on recognizing off-speed pitches. That is a big step for me. Last year I got to the plate and swung as hard as I could. This year I'll do a better job of reading the pitcher from the dugout and then being patient at the plate."

Once on base, Jones has another vision, this one more specific to replacing Mahtook.

"(Mahtook) had great heart, and he was a very intense player," Jones said. "Every time he got a base hit, he would holler and made the crowd know he made a good play. He was determined to make the best plays he could, and he could come through in the clutch.

"I want to be that person for this team."

Mainieri recalls a conversation with Jones last spring where that exact topic was brought up.

"One day when fans were heaping adulation on Mikie, I told Jacoby, ‘You could be like this kid,'" Mainieri said.

"Why do you think fans react to Mikie like they do? It's not just ability. It's the passion he plays with. The fans relate to that because they are passionate people. They want to see you care about what you are doing."

Set to bat in the No. 5 spot and replace Mahtook in centerfield, Jones will likely be one of the key cogs in LSU's efforts to return not just to Omaha, but now the NCAA postseason.

With opening day three weeks away, all signs point to the 2011 Freshman All-American being in the right place - both physically and mentally.

"I feel like I am developing as a player and getting more and more mature every day," Jones said.

Mainieri added: "I honestly think the sky is the limit for this kid. He would certainly help make up for the loss of Mikie. He has the capabilities of doing that."

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