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Baseball: This LSU baseball transfer could help Ragin' Cajuns just about anywhere + UL vs. LSU PG

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 10, 2021

Click here for the LSU vs. UL Baseball Game Photo Gallery.

Before getting injured, CJ Willis was a highly regarded Major League Baseball draft prospect at Ruston High.

Ragin’ Cajuns coach Matt Deggs considers the Monroe native the quintessential utility player, worthy of a quite complimentary MLB comparison.

“I look at him like Mark McLemore,” said Deggs, whose Cajuns (9-4) visit Mississippi State on Wednesday (5 p.m., SEC Network/ESPN�, KPEL-AM 1420). “The guy played every day, but just a different position. I think CJ has that capability.

“There’s a lot of advantage to that, as far as pushing other guys, as far as being able to give guys rest, as far as being able to match up. So my vision for CJ is that I think he’s gonna be a really, really good player with, like, big potential there.”

Preseason:Here are five newcomers to watch for the Ragin' Cajuns baseball team

Tampa Bay Rays drafted CJ Willis

Willis, who transferred from LSU, knows something about being a prospect.

He hit .338 at Ruston High, earning Perfect Game All-American and USA TODAY All-Louisiana recognition.

“He was gonna be a top-three rounds draft pick coming out of high school,” Deggs said.

But Willis suffered a torn shoulder labrum a few games into his senior season. He sat out a week, and was a designed hitter the rest of the year.

Instead of going high in the draft, the Tampa Bay Rays took him in the 39th round in 2018. Willis decided to enroll at LSU. 

For subscribers:Why Cajuns pitcher Spencer Arrighetti left TCU Horned Frogs

He appeared in 24 games as a freshman, starting six at DH and five at first base for the Tigers, but hit just .212. His best series came at Mississippi State, where he had three hits and five of his seven RBIs on the season.

A .362 summer in the Northwoods League, in the heart of the Midwest, prompted high hopes for 2020. But Willis played just five games for LSU last year. He started one in left field, didn’t have a hit in four at-bats and transferred after COVID-19 cut the season short.

“So what he needs,” Deggs said, “is just more experience and confidence.”

UL offers opportunity

Willis, whose father Chris played football at Louisiana Tech and whose mother Mandy ran track there, is getting just that at UL.

He has started seven of the nine games he’s played and is hitting .348 with four doubles, a triple, seven runs scored and three RBIs.

“Sometimes guys – especially elite-type athletes, which CJ is – have a different gear in there,” Deggs said. “They’re wired just a little bit differently sometimes.

“He liked it when the lights were flicked on, for sure.” 

Willis’ best game this season: 3-for-3 with a school record-tying three doubles in a win over Louisiana Tech on March 2.

“I’m feeling loose right now,” he said after the game. “I’m just seeing the ball really well.”

Since the Louisiana Tech game, though, Willis is 0-for-5, including 0-for-4 in Wednesday’s loss at McNeese and getting just one at-bat in three games against Houston Baptist last weekend.

LSU first impressions:Hot question at hot corner and more timely hitting needed

But if he can return to hitting like he did against Louisiana Tech, Deggs will continue to find a spot for Willis.

Somewhere. Anywhere.

He’s already played at first, second and third, and Deggs wouldn’t hesitate to use him in the outfield if needed.

“He’s a super competitive kid that literally can play all three outfield spots, all four infield spots and he can catch,” Deggs said. “Haven’t seen him pitch yet, but maybe.”

Related:What to know about UL's 2021 baseball schedule, seating plan, parking

Deggs laughs because he knows seeing Willis on the mound is doubtful.

Willis rules out nothing. Which is why he took it to heart when Deggs recently gave him a homework assignment.

Who’s Mark McLemore?

“Coach Deggs actually had me research him,” Willis said, “and come back the next day and tell what I learned about him.”

With some help from his dad, a Texas Rangers fan who counted McLemore among his favorite players, Willis learned the retired major leaguer played mostly second base but also saw time at first, shortstop, left field, right field and center field over 19 seasons with seven franchises from 1986-2004, including the Rangers.

McLemore is now an analyst for Fox Sports Southwest and the Rangers.

No wonder the comparison is embraced by Willis, 

“I love playing all around,” said Willis. “The more positions you play the better chance you’ll see the field.

“I’ve kind of been doing it my whole life. So it’s nothing really new. I’m used to it. I enjoy it.”