by Barry Allen
SEBaseball.com Baseball Staff Writer
Raph Rhymes wasn't even born when Alabama All-American David Magadan tore up the Southeastern Conference with a .525 batting average in 1983, but he has certainly drawn comparisons in his quest to hit .500 this season for the LSU Tigers.
"Who can ever predict a player would hit .475 to .500," LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said. "I think anybody that says 'oh yeah, I saw that coming' would be fabricating that. No one does that. I've been doing this for 30 years and I have never had a player hit for that high of an average. He had shown that he was an outstanding player."
Rhymes has put up staggering numbers all season long and he takes his NCAA-leading .469 (92-for-196) average into the SEC Tournament at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. The Tigers earned a first-round bye and will play its first game on Wednesday against an opponent to be determined. For his efforts this season, Rhymes was named the 2012 SEC Player of the Year on Sunday by SEBaseball.com.
"It is a huge honor," Rhymes said of the award. "I never expected anything like this. It has been a lot of fun. I have to give a lot of credit to my coaches and my teammates. I have to give credit to the guys in front of me for getting on base. Mason Katz got on base 17 straight time this year and it would not be possible without those guys. This is such a great team with a great coaching staff and good teammates."
The Monroe, La., native leads the SEC in hitting (.469), on-base percentage (.522) and total hits (92) entering the post season. He also ranks third in RBIs (49), fifth in slugging (.571) and ninth in total bases (112). In SEC play, he is first in hitting (.458), on-base percentage (.536) and total hits (49). He also ranks fourth in slugging (.570) and fifth in total bases (61).
"It has been a little surreal," Rhymes said. "I have had to sometimes step back and pinch myself. It's hard to believe something like this has really happened. I am thankful and blessed and without God, none of this would be possible. It has been a lot of fun. Our team is winning and that is the biggest thing. To receive this honor means a lot and lets me know that LSU is having a good year. I am just going out there and having a good time every day and enjoying the time with my teammates and trying to complete and take this team to Omaha."
Rhymes led the Tigers with 31-multi-hit games this season. He has recorded 19 multi-hit games, eight three-hit games and four, four-hit games. He also posted a team-best 16-game hitting streak.
"He just has very good hand-eye coordination," Mainieri said. "He has a very quick bat and his bat stays in the hitting zone an awful long time, it's kind of a flat swing. He hit the ball where it's pitched. If you pitch the ball inside, he will jerk it down the left field line and hit it out of the ballpark. If you pitch him away, he will slap it to right field. If you throw it down the middle, the pitcher better duck. That is just how he is."
Things have not always been this fun for Rhymes, who did not make the LSU team as walk-on and ended up transferring to LSU-Eunice.
"After being cut my confidence level was a little down," Rhymes said. "I think anybody that had been through that would have their confidence down a little bit. I got to LSU-Eunice and they had a good team and I wanted to help them win a national championship.
In 2010, he hit .483 with 12 home runs and 98 RBIs as was named the NJCAA Division II Player of the Year after leading the Bengals to the NJCAA Division II national championship. He added 31 doubles and 15 stolen bases.
He joined the LSU team last season and has not stopped hitting.
"It gave him a chance to play a lot and gain an unbelievable amount of confidence," Mainieri said. "He showed what he was capable of doing at LSU-Eunice. Then last year, when he came back to us he hit .360 and that was the first year with the new bats and everybody was making big adjustments. I am not surprised at all that he had a tremendous year this year.
"I thought having a year of getting used to the SEC and getting used to the level of completion and getting used to the new bats that he would be better this year, but who could have predicted what he did."
No one could have predicted the season Rhymes had, but he has certainly been a hit at Alex Box Stadium.