College baseball: How a tough talk transformed LSU's Todd Peterson into a breakout star
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Upon its arrival in Oregon, the LSU baseball team turned over its Instagram account -- and its 100,000 followers -- to sophomore pitcher Todd Peterson.
"The boys have arrived," Peterson said off camera in one of the videos, as he and his teammates entered Goss Stadium in Corvallis. "The new battleground. Tigers are ready for this weekend."
Of course Peterson took the reins of one of LSU baseball's social media accounts. After the memorable week he had at the Southeastern Conference tournament, he might as well have the keys to the program.
However isolated the college baseball world may be outside of Baton Rouge, Peterson was nearly impossible to miss for about 24 hours after he clubbed a two-run 12th-inning double in his first collegiate at-bat, backing up his five outstanding innings against South Carolina in the SEC tournament.
The video LSU shared of his postgame interview has been watched nearly two million times. The hit -- and memorable postgame news conference -- was featured prominently on Scott Van Pelt's "SportsCenter." The college baseball world, for a moment, was caught up in Todd Peterson fever.
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It makes perfect sense in this moment for Peterson to be enjoying his time in the spotlight. It does not make it any less remarkable when considering where he was a year ago.
How fitting it is that this Todd Peterson phenomenon -- the magnificent performances on the field, the viral interviews off it -- began in Hoover, Alabama, of all places.
It was just a year earlier when Peterson was the story du jour of the SEC tournament, albeit for different reasons.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri had tabbed him to start the Tigers; first game of the SEC tournament against Missouri. The night before that game, LSU announced his suspension for a violation of unspecified team rules.
"There was a level of immaturity that a lot of youngsters go through," Mainieri said, declining to go into detail.
It was not only Peterson's conduct.
Over the course of Peterson's freshman season -- his first full year away from home -- he allowed himself to get out of shape. In a postseason interview last year, Mainieri said Peterson was 25 pounds overweight.
His poor conditioning led to issues with the strength of his shoulder, which led to the biggest letdown of all: When freshman sensation Eric Walker was lost for the year with an elbow injury, and when LSU needed someone to step up and start Game 1 of the College World Series championship, Peterson was unavailable.
It was clear to Mainieri then that he needed to have a difficult conversation with Peterson, centering on opportunities gone by the wayside.
"'You could've started the opening game of the SEC tournament. You could've started the opening game of the College World Series (final) in front of 30,000 people. But you let those opportunities dissipate because of a lack of self-discipline,'" Mainieri recalled telling Peterson.
"'Shame on you if you don't learn from this.'"
A spot in the prestigious Cape Cod summer league was called off so Peterson could get himself in order. The message from Mainieri to Peterson was simple: Shape up or ship out.
He went home to Florida over the summer humbled and, more importantly, dedicated.
"I think Todd just wanted to get back on the high horse and prove that he's that guy that can get the job done," said Todd's father, Hans Peterson. "He took it to heart."
There was Peterson, giving the people what they wanted -- a little stretch here, a mighty swing of the bat there, a nod to the moment that had his name on the tip of everyone's tongue.
He was in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning in LSU's SEC tournament game against Florida last Friday. The spotlight from his heroics the previous night was still focused on him.
Peterson and Mainieri were active participants in the circus that followed. It was Mainieri who penned Peterson's name in the cleanup spot against Florida, knowing full well he would never get an at-bat. It was Peterson who played along with it.
Looking just as out of place as he did the night before with a bat in his hands, the 6-foot-5 pitcher began an elaborate stretching routine. He knew exactly what he was doing.
"I was telling some of the guys, 'Watch this; I'm going to grab a bat, start doing some stretches and the SEC Network is going to be eating this up,' " Peterson said. "I started stretching and all the cameras started running out. It was really funny."
He does not remember how many text messages he had after that game, only the fun of experiencing his world being turned upside down in the best way for a day.
"It was pretty funny seeing how Jurassically it blew up," Peterson said.
Peterson is comfortable in his own skin. He is only now getting to show off the hard work that got him into this position -- thanks in part to a coaching decision to try him out late in a tight game.
As Mainieri demanded, Peterson dedicated himself to getting in shape in the offseason, shedding weight and impressing the coach enough to debut in the weekend rotation to begin this season.
"He's been a model kid all year," Mainieri said. "From the time he got back here, he's been in better shape. He's been totally dedicated."
It has not been a seamless transition from the lows of last season to the highs of the moment. He got knocked around in two starts before going back to the bullpen, where he had to prove himself all over again.
But in a May 5 game against Arkansas, Mainieri called on Peterson to protect a two-run lead against an excellent Arkansas lineup in the ninth inning.
The Tigers stumbled upon a late-inning stopper they didn't know they had.
Peterson was nasty in that game, putting everything into his excellent fastball to seal the win with a perfect inning. Mainieri said immediately afterward that he might have found something in Peterson as a ninth-inning option.
The opportunities kept coming, and Peterson kept delivering.
Since he stepped into the closer's role May 5, he worked 11 2/3 innings in six games, allowed three runs and only nine base runners.
LSU has won all six of those games. Peterson earned the save in four of them and a win in another.
In the span of one year, he went from needing to prove why he was worthy of a roster spot to being the guy LSU turns to with the game on the line.
"We couldn't be happier for Todd, man," said his teammate, starting pitcher Zack Hess. "He's made a lot of changes. He's stayed the course and he's been such a huge factor for us this entire year.
"We want to continue to see him do what he's been doing for us, because we're going to need him in the back end of the bullpen if we want to make a run."
The coach and the player were alone.
They were walking together through the tunnel that led from the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium to the interview room, and Mainieri thought back on where they were a year before.
"I said, 'Todd, you had an experience today that very few people get to experience in their life. I'm so happy for you to have had this experience,' " Mainieri recalled. "'Now what I want you to do ... (is) understand just what's possible for you in your life as a baseball player if you take care of yourself and do the right thing and make good decisions and dedicate yourself.' "
These are the moments Mainieri relishes, when coaching reveals potential, and a fringe player becomes a breakout star.
This article is written by Luke Johnson from The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.