Rhymes looks to crack .500 plateau
Tigers outfielder is currently leading DI in batting average
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Beneath a faultless blue April sky, the top hitter in the country by a country mile settles into the left side of the batters box.
What Raph Rhymes does next isn’t so much a practice session as a performance. The bat is his baton, and what follows is a symphony of hitting.
Ping … ping … ping … ping. The bat meets the ball time after time and sends it arching and looping across the green expanse of Alex Box Stadium.
“I pitch batting practice to him every day,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “If I throw him a pitch inside, he pulls it. If I throw him a pitch outside, he just slaps it to right field. If I throw it down the middle he hits it back up the middle. He never gets bored doing that.”
Ten years ago when he was head coach at Notre Dame, Mainieri had a player named Steve Stanley who hit .439. Going into LSU’s weekend series scheduled to begin Friday against Georgia, Rhymes was hitting 58 points higher than that, leading all Division I hitters at .497 (his nearest competition was Hofstra’s Danny Poma at .451).
|RHYMES SEASON STATS|
|*-Leads Division I|
“I thought that was remarkable,” Mainieri said of Stanley’s season. "But what Rhymes is doing, it’s something I haven’t seen my entire life in baseball.”
At the very least, what Rhymes is trying to do hasn’t been done in a generation.
It’s been 21 years since anyone in NCAA Division I hit .500. That was was Duquesne’s Ron Dziezgowski, who went 44-for-88 in just 33 games played.
The LSU school record -- Russ Johnson hit .410 in 1994 -- isn’t even a horse race at this point. Having hit safely in 71 of 143 at bats so far, Rhymes could go 0-for-31 and not drop below .410. He’s actually much closer to the SEC record of .525 set by Alabama’s Dave Magadan in 1983.
Those aren’t Rhymes’ only remarkable numbers. He’s got more multiple RBI games (11) than strikeouts (7). He’s hitting .655 with runners in scoring position (5-for-5 with the bases loaded), .490 against right-handers and .500 against lefties.
“It’s amazing, because he’s just as good midweek off a lefty throwing 72 as he is off a power right-hander throwing 97 on the weekend,” LSU hitting coach Javi Sanchez said. “He’s the same guy. It’s awesome to see.”
Perhaps even more awe-inspiring when one considers how different college baseball is from 21 years ago.
For one thing, college aluminum bats are much less lively they were in the 1990s. Players have been using the new reduced BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats for two seasons now. The result is balls that used to go over the outfield wall or over the head of opposing defenders now must find the holes in between. Rhymes may break Johnson’s record, but with only 21 homers as a team, LSU’s NCAA record of 188 homers in 1997 appears impregnable.
Two, fan and media attention has grown exponentially over the last two decades. LSU routinely leads the nation in paid attendance, averaging over 10,000 fans per game, and nearly half the Tigers’ games are televised.
Despite those potential pitfalls, Rhymes comes armed with a potent mix of talents that make him such a deadly hitter.
He chooses to be as unaware as possible of how well he’s doing -- Rhymes has to be told that he had reached the .500 mark after going 4-for-4 Sunday at Kentucky – and he plans on keeping it that way.
“I’m not a big stat guy,” said Rhymes with a Huck Finn “aw shucks” look on his face, “so I’ve never looked at it. Your batting average is in the past. I don’t like to go up to an at bat and think about my batting average, because it’s in the past.”
Rhymes possesses a consistent, compact swing that Sanchez said produces and unusually high amount of contact.
“The barrel is in the zone for a really long period of time,” Sanchez said. “Even if he guesses wrong on what type of pitch it is speed-wise, he has more margin for error."
Though he may hit like The Natural, junior with the sweet swing and alliterative name isn’t a Roy Hobbs-come-lately.
Drafted in the 40th round out of Monroe (La.) Neville High School by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rhymes came to LSU but was unable to make the team in 2009. So he transferred to national junior college power LSU-Eunice instead, where he was the 2010 NJCAA Division II player of the year hitting .483 with 31 doubles, 12 home runs and 98 RBIs.
Rhymes was recruited back to LSU in 2011 and started all 56 games as a sophomore, hitting .360 to rank sixth in the SEC despite a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery last July.
“Coming here fresh out of high school these guys were definitely in better physical shape than I was,” Rhymes said. “You could tell they’d been here and they knew how to play this game at the SEC level. I wasn’t ready for that, so I needed to go somewhere and develop my skills, get bigger and get stronger."
“To get a second chance to come back to LSU is something I’ll never forget.”
If he keeps this up, no one will forget the season Rhymes is having.