By LUKE JOHNSON
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
After two inconsistent years spent chasing inconsistent innings, junior outfielder Jared Foster’s time has arrived.
The Tigers will start the 2014 campaign with Foster as their starting right fielder and cleanup hitter. It’s a big jump for someone who, until this point in his career, has proven only in small doses that he can be an impact player at the collegiate level.
But when he’s had the opportunity to make something happen …
"You saw last year when Jared played in the SEC Championship Game,” said sophomore shortstop Alex Bregman. "He took over the game.”
Boy, did he ever.
In that game against top-ranked Vanderbilt, Foster went 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored, including the game-winning run in the top of the 11th. He reached base another two times being hit by a pitch. But his impact went beyond the plate.
Vanderbilt had scored two runs in the seventh inning already and was poised to break open what had been a tight game. The Commodores had the bases loaded with one out when Vanderbilt catcher Spencer Navin popped a ball up to Foster in right field.
The former Barbre quarterback caught the ball, gathered his momentum and delivered a strike to home plate for the easy double play. The LSU dugout erupted. The throw swiped back any steam Vanderbilt built up in an instant.
"He won us the SEC Championship against Vanderbilt,” Bregman said. "He is a game-changer.This year he’s shown a lot more consistency.”
That’s always been what held Foster back. He’s shown flashes of that game-changing ability in his first two seasons, but he’s not quite been able to put it all together over a full season. The tools have always been there, though, and now everything seems to be coming together.
LSU’s Friday-night ace Aaron Nola said Foster has always been a "tough” out at the plate, but he’s noticed a difference in him this season when pitching to him in intersquad scrimmages.
"He’s definitely made a big jump since last year,” Nola said. "He’s gotten bigger, stronger, he’s more selective at the plate. He’s definitely going to play a big part, a big role, on our team this year. Once he gets going and gets used to the every day thing, he’s going to step up real big.”
He hit .369 in 64 at bats last season, mostly against left-handed pitching. Since spring spring practice started, he’s shown enough not only for LSU coach Paul Mainieri to commit to playing him every day but to put him in a crucial spot in the Tigers’ order.
"Jared Foster is really ready to blossom,” Mainieri said. "The last three weeks, he’s played unbelievable. … He’s so ready to blossom that I’m going to hit him four-hole right behind Bregman. That’ll show you how much confidence I have in him.”
By moving Foster into the everyday lineup, Mainieri is also bolstering his defense.
While Sean McMullen might be a capable outfielder in his own right, a starting outfield consisting of Foster, center fielder Andrew Stevenson and left fielder Mark Laird might be one of the fastest collective groups in the country.
Nola and the pitching staff will accept that gladly.
"Their speed is unbelievable,” Nola said. "It definitely helps me out a lot. When those balls are hit in the gap, some outfielders from other teams around the country don’t usually get the balls that they’ll get.”
Mainieri had to do some shuffling in order to make it work properly. Laird is moving over to left field to accommodate Foster, whose stronger arm and right-handed glove is more suited to defending the right field line.
They both have to get used to the ball flying off the bat a little differently in the two opposite corner outfield spots, but the overall goal is still the same.
"We just try not to let anything hit the ground,” Laird said.
Now that he’s earned a spot, Foster doesn’t plan on looking over his shoulder and waiting for the hook. This is his opportunity to prove himself, and he’s going to run with it.
"Just go be relaxed and play the game,” Foster said. "Don’t worry about, ‘If I do this I might get taken out.’ Just go play and let the instincts take over. Hard work should contribute to that.”