Baseball is a mean game.
Friday night in Los Angeles, the greatest hitter of our generation went 0 for 4. Albert Pujols, 27 games into the season, dipped below the Mendoza line.
How is that possible?
Because the slightest of mechanical failures can cause even the world's best swing to break down. Because the pitcher tries to surprise you, and sometimes curve balls drop like beads on Bourbon Street. Because fielders try to defend you, and sometimes great at-bats go unrewarded.
Pujols struck out. Flew out. Grounded out. And crushed a line drive — right at the shortstop.
Baseball is a mean game. Which makes the kid down at LSU so gripping.
Three years ago, Raph Rhymes wasn't good enough to make the Tigers' roster. He got cut. He watched a national championship dog pile from a living room. He enrolled in junior college. He came back to Baton Rouge. Now he's doing something that makes baseball fans across the country stop and stare.
Through 48 games, the right-hander has 83 hits in 167 at-bats.
A .497 average.
“That's ridiculous. I couldn't do that off a tee,” said Darin Erstad, the Nebraska coach and No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft. “The odds are just astronomical. It defies everything that's been proven in the statistics of baseball.”
Rhymes stood at .500 until a 1-for-3 game at Ole Miss on Saturday. How is that possible?
Because he uses the whole field, foul line to foul line. Because his eyes are keen, his hands are quick and his swing is flat as the Bayou. Because unlike Pujols, his line drives are finding holes.
Because baseball is a glorious game.
* * *
From 1971 to 1991, 15 Division I baseball players eclipsed .500. Nobody has done it since.
The last was Ron Dziezgowski of Duquesne, 21 years ago. The last player to do it with more than 100 at-bats was Seton Hall's Marteese Robinson in '87. The last player to hit .500 in a major baseball conference was Dave Magadan in '83.
Erstad believes it's harder than ever because of the new BBCOR bats (instituted in 2011) that perform like wood bats.
“It's not like he's swinging a hot stick where he can get some cheapos,” said Erstad, who hit .410 his final season at Nebraska. “You have to be able to hit the baseball with these new aluminum bats.”
Rhymes entered the weekend 90 points higher than the LSU school record; 50 points higher than the second-best hitter nationally; 97 points higher than the second-best hitter from a major conference.
It's no longer a hot streak. It's a hot season.
Rhymes hits fastballs, breaking balls, righties, lefties, hard throwers, soft throwers, future lawyers and future major-leaguers. He was 8 for 13 against Dartmouth. He was 7 for 12 against Arkansas.
“Every time I get two hits, it seems like Raph gets four,” said Mason Katz, who is hitting .335, second best in the LSU lineup.
Rhymes has only five hitless games all season. That's the most impressive thing, Erstad said. No hitter brings his best swing to the plate every at-bat. Some days “you just don't feel good.”
“To have that kind of consistency is mind-boggling to me,” Erstad said. “It just doesn't seem real.”
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Nor does Rhymes' .644 clip with runners in scoring position. Or his 5-for-6 mark with the bases loaded.
According to Katz, there's only one way to describe it.
* * *
Sticking with Tigers
His first name is Raphael, but he goes by Raph. It rhymes with “safe.”
Rhymes doesn't pay much attention to his “battin'” average. LSU coach Paul Mainieri calls him humble and modest — “a good ol' boy from Monroe.”
He loves to hunt and fish. More than anything, he loves LSU baseball. Rhymes' grandfather was a Tiger. When he was in middle school, Raph's family road-tripped to Omaha for the CWS. Both times, LSU went two-and-barbecue.
Rhymes was all-state in high school, but not highly recruited. He enrolled at LSU.
The walk-on tryout was suspended because of Hurricane Gustav. Rhymes was almost late to the make-up date. He showed up in shorts.
But he had talent — coaches saw it. Mainieri kept him around for fall practice. He might have kept him permanently, but that was the first season the NCAA limited rosters to 35. And this LSU roster was loaded.
The week before Christmas, Mainieri broke the news: You're not good enough. Not yet anyway. Come back next fall and you'll have a spot.
Rhymes stayed in school. Watched games from the stands. But he rarely picked up a glove. And he never swung a bat. Not once in seven months.
“I didn't play any baseball except on PlayStation,” Rhymes said.
He watched the 2009 CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium from his buddy's couch in Monroe. “I was going nuts” when the Tigers recorded the last out.
Rhymes figured he'd start working out a few weeks before the fall semester. Try to make the team again.
Then he got a call from the coach at Eunice — a Louisiana junior college. The team needed a second baseman.
Rhymes never gave up on LSU. But he figured his best chance to improve was Eunice.
He played a year in junior college, hitting .483 for a team that won a national title. Then he returned to Baton Rouge.
When he showed up for fall practice in 2010, LSU veterans recognized him from '08.
Hey, you're back!
Better than they remembered. Stronger. More confident.
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LSU coaches started polishing Rhymes' swing. He was “a dead-pull hitter” in junior college, he says. Can't succeed that way in the SEC. Coaches helped him go opposite field.
In 2011, LSU wasn't good enough to make the SEC tournament. But Rhymes hit a smooth .360.
Then, another detour. A freak elbow injury while he was throwing in the outfield. Tommy John surgery. It kept him out of summer ball. For three months, he couldn't take a full cut.
He came back even better.
Teammates still make fun of his unorthodox swing: the left arm bar, the way he wiggles his bat, the big left leg kick.
But they marvel at how early he recognizes pitches. How he swings within himself. How, even if the pitcher fools him, his bat stays in the zone long enough to hit it hard.
“He'll hit balls down the right-field line where he'll make contact way deep,” Katz said. “Then he'll make contact on his very front foot and push it up the middle for a base hit.”
Rhymes has only three home runs. That's how he's different from SEC stars of the past, Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said.
“Usually, guys that good have more strength than he does,” Henderson said. “(Matt) LaPorta, (Todd) Helton, Brad Wilkerson, Eddy Furniss. He's got a flat stroke, singles and doubles ...
“He's doing it with the ball staying inside the fence.”
* * *
On April 22, Rhymes went 4 for 4 against Kentucky. For the first time in two months, his average reached .500.
Recently, someone asked Mainieri how Rhymes can stay there.
“How do I know?” the coach said. “I've never seen anybody hit .500.”
Since 1991, Rickie Weeks came the closest. Twice he led the nation in hitting. In '02, he hit .495. If one of his line drives had found a hole instead of a glove, he would've reached .500.
Weeks, now a second baseman with the Milwaukee Brewers, played at Southern University — in the same town as LSU. Fans and media didn't pay him any attention. Which probably helped, Weeks said.
“The biggest thing for somebody like that — and it's hard to do — is trying to block out outside influences,” Weeks said Wednesday during a Brewers road trip. “You've got family reading stuff or talking about it, it's hard to stay away from it.”
Especially in the SEC.
Dave Magadan, Boston Red Sox hitting coach, hit .535 at Alabama in '83.
“From day one, I just felt like I was locked in,” Magadan said Friday from the Boston clubhouse.
But '83 was a different era. SEC baseball crowds didn't exceed 10,000. Magadan wasn't on TV.
As a top-5 team, LSU might play 25 more games. The further Rhymes advances, the better the pitching, the brighter the spotlight.
And baseball leaves a lot of time to think.
“It's a cliché, but you have to take it one at-bat at a time,” Magadan said. “One game at a time.
“You go 0-for, you gotta learn how to forget it. That's inbred in a lot of great hitters. They have a short memory.”
Magadan has watched Rhymes play on TV. Great swing, he says. But .500 is a tall mountain to climb.
“You go 2 for 5 and your average plummets,” Magadan said.
Said Erstad: “All it takes is one 0-for-10 (slump) and it's done. It's that fragile.”
Which is why, if Rhymes stays in range of .500, baseball fans from Baton Rouge to Boston to Lincoln will pay close attention. They'll check LSU box scores. They'll tune in to ESPN.
They'll root for a good ol' boy from Monroe who spent his freshman year on the couch.
Can Raph Rhymes dust off the pages of college baseball history? Probably not.
But Albert Pujols is hitting .194. So you never know.
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