Put yourself in Casey Yocom’s shoes for just a minute.
You turn in a junior-college career good enough to warrant a scholarship from one of the top programs in the country, you show up on campus without a specific position to play and your daunting but cut-and-dried task is to find a way to fit into a veteran infield that legitimately claim to be as good as any in the country.
Do what comes naturally.
“I came in here and I knew I was going to have to make a good first impression to even have a chance of playing,” said the Reno native who spent two years at Feather River Community College in remote Northern California.
“So I came out here with a great attitude and tried to impress my teammates and work as hard as I can.”
In other words, Yocom stuck to the same script that got him noticed in the first place.
When the season gets off the ground Friday, Yocom will be LSU’s starting second baseman, sharing the infield with seniors Tyler Hanover and Austin Nola and junior Mason Katz, who blossomed into a star last season.
“I’ve played shortstop every year of my life, so I had to make the transition and play second base and third base in the fall,” said Yocom, who batted .354 with 25 RBIs as a sophomore last spring and was voted the defensive MVP of the Golden Valley Conference. “It was a little tough in the beginning, but I got used to it. I was kind of lost over there at the start, but having two seniors over there telling me to slow everything down and do it right helped me a lot.”
Familiarity certainly played an important part as well.
Hanover spent the 2010 season as the Tigers’ starting second baseman and Nola has played the position extensively in summer ball. Both also had some experience stepping into a veteran infield. Both did so in 2009 and played integral roles in LSU’s surge to the College World Series championship.
“Casey has been great because he works hard and wants to be the best at whatever position he plays,” Nola said. “He’s been out there a lot in game situations in the fall and this spring, and that makes a big difference to your confidence.
“He knows how to make all the plays over there at second base because he’s been a shortstop and knows what kind of flips you need to make and where the guy at both positions wants the ball. He’s got good hands, good feet and he’s real athletic.”
Adjusting on defense is one thing.
Yocom also faces the challenge of finding his way against Division I pitching, particularly when the SEC season kicks in.
A gap-to-gap hitter, Yocom will get a shot hitting in the two-hole as the season begins, behind Hanover at leadoff and in front of Raph Rhymes and Katz, the Tigers’ best run producers.
“The transition hitting-wise has been really tough because of the pitching staff we see here every day,” Yocom said. “But I’ve gotten comfortable in the box and I’m seeing the ball well. All I can do is stay the hitter I am and focus on putting the ball in play.”
While Yocom has a tricky learning curve to navigate, Hanover and Nola are the most experienced LSU veterans and both are embracing their roles as leaders on a team with only four seniors.
Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri said Hanover’s spot as the leadoff hitter is “a key to (LSU’s) season.”
Last season Hanover batted a modest .316 but drew a career-high 32 walks and also laid down a single-season school-record 15 sacrifice bunts.
“For us to have a good team with him as the leadoff hitter, he is going to have to have his best year offensively,” Mainieri said.
Nola will be of a middle-of-the-order hitter after sliding up and down the batting order a year ago, hitting most in the fifth spot. His numbers weren’t spectacular -- .296 with 42 RBIs – but Mainieri doesn’t mask his desire for the senior from Baton Rouge to be around the batter’s box in clutch situations.
“He’s always going to battle and give us a chance, especially in clutch situations,” Mainieri said. “I’ll take my chances every time with Austin in the box when we have a runner in scoring position.”
If Hanover is a major key to the Tigers’ offensive hopes, he has company in Katz.
While no one hitter will fill the sizable cleats left when All-American center fielder Mikey Mahtook left after being drafted by Tampa in the first round, Katz is the heir apparent as the most feared stick in the batting order.
After a hand injury shelved him for five games last April, Katz came back on a tear. Over the final 15 games – while he adjusted to playing first base full-time – Katz swung at a torrid .467 clip (28 for 60) to boost his season average to .337. He finished the season with a team-high 21 doubles and was the Tigers’ most productive hitter with runners in scoring position at.438.
Now Katz will begin the season in the cleanup spot and is likely to bounce between first base and right field.
“I get out here early and try to work on both positions before every practice just in case,” Katz said of his dual roles. “I just have to come out here and work on it, but I try to come out here and work 50-50 at each just to make sure I am still sharp at both. I look at the lineup and then run to wherever I am supposed to go.
“I love it. It helps our team out – it’s not just having first base open to where you have to find somebody to play there. If an outfielder is hitting really well we can throw him out there. If an infielder is hitting well you can put him at first base. It really adds a bat to our lineup all of the time. It is not just trying to find a guy to play; it’s having two options rather than one.”
When Katz is in the outfield, freshman Tyler Moore is the leading candidate to man first base, with senior Grant Dozar also in the mix. Moore can also move across the diamond and play third base, and fellow freshman Evan Powell could get time at the hot corner as well. Beau Didier had a solid spring and is capable of playing all four infield spots.
When Yocom needs a day off, Hanover could shift over to second base, and freshman Jared Foster has also turned some heads as a backup there.
“We have a solid group of guys who play the infield,” Hanover said. “It’s good to have veteran guys like me and Mason and Austin, but there are young guys who can step in there and play when we need them to.”