Airline High School baseball coach Al Cantwell stood 20 feet from the plate, firing fastballs and sliders at Hayden Travinski. He hit 10 in a row.
Several teammates stood behind him, cheering as he splattered balls into the outfield.
“I couldn’t get anything by him,” Cantwell said. "It was the most impressive thing I’ve seen in baseball."
The idea for what was called “BP from hell” actually came from LSU. The Tigers had just lost and Cantwell saw a quote in the paper about it. He had told his team, “I feel like if I challenge you, you’ll cry and get me in trouble.”
But not Travinski. He stood up and said, “Hell, no. Let’s go.”
So Cantwell threw batting practice to Travinski from 20 feet closer than the normal distance of 40 feet, and the likelihood of his arm giving out became increasingly more likely than firing three strikes by Travinski.
Not many 18-year-old baseball players can hit what was the equivalent of a 100 mph fastball, or a 90-mph slider, but Travinski could. That’s part of what made him the No. 2 catcher in the nation and No. 2 recruit in the state of Louisiana, according to Perfect Game.
That was all forgotten as Travinski’s injuries piled up through college. He was the catcher who never made it through a fall, who once had three surgeries in the span of 14 months and could never manage a full, healthy season.
But this year, he went through his first full fall with a clean bill of health, and he has played in 34 games — more than any of his other three years at LSU. He’s homered in 10 of the last 21 games he’s played, dating back to April 22. He is now a key piece of the LSU lineup heading into the super regional against Kentucky, which begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at Alex Box Stadium.
“I got asked that question the other day, ‘Is it satisfying to see everything worked out?’ ” Travinski said. “And it is in a sense that not for a second did I doubt that I could do it. I have a delusional sense of confidence — it's something that I've known could happen. I've just had to figure out how to put the puzzle pieces together to let it happen.”
Waiting for his call
Growing up in Bossier City, Travinski used to take hitting lessons at LSU-Shreveport, which turned into him taking BP with the college kids at age 13.
That was the first time Cantwell saw him. He was the coach at LSU-Shreveport before he moved back to the high school game at Airline.
“Even at a young age, you can just tell when it comes off the bat, it makes a different sound,” Cantwell said.
No one knows where Travinski gets his strength from, since he didn’t lift a lot of weights growing up.
Even his dad, Jason Travinski, is perplexed by it.
“I'm a big dude. I'm 260 pounds and we were at Marucci, and I’m a building contractor, I work with my hands, so I’m strong,” Jason Travinski said. “We did that little hand strength test thing, and he actually beat me and I was shocked. I was like, ‘There's no way you freaking beat me.’ ”
The 6-foot-3 catcher’s hitting power is also coupled with that delusional confidence.
“People are like, ‘Oh, he’s been hot,’ and he’s like, ‘Dad, I'm not that hot. I'll go one for three in a game or one for four and have a home run. I'm still screwing up at-bats,’ ” Jason Travinski said. “In his mind, there's a lot more that he will and can do.”
That doesn't mean Travinski was impatient as he waited for his opportunity to crack LSU’s lineup this season. He knew it was coming.
“When I was in first grade, maybe kindergarten, we did a booklet as a class and said, ‘What do you want to be when you get older?’ And mine just said ‘Major League Baseball player,’ ” Travinski said. “That’s how I've always thought my whole life. What’s that saying? ‘You’ve got to act how you want to be.’ The more I thought about it — because perception is a lot of life — I feel like it makes too much sense.”
So when freshman catcher Brady Neal got hurt in early April, that left Travinski to share the work with Alex Milazzo at catcher. He made his first Southeastern Conference start of the season April 22, then came in as a pinch hitter the next day in the top of the ninth when LSU was down 6-4, launching a three-run home run to win the game.
“When I'm in the box, I don't think there's anybody that could get me out,” Travinski said.
That expectation can be to a fault sometimes. His dad calls Travinski a bit of a “swing scientist” who always looked to overanalyze or correct his swing through the years.
This year, he shortened his swing and simplified his approach by forcing pitchers to feed him something over the plate as opposed to believing he could hit anything thrown at him.
Part of that is because he’s finally healthy again.
The low point
Travinski felt a familiar click in his left knee at fall practice during his junior season.
He had gone through two torn meniscus repairs on both knees, but after finally being able to swing a bat after Tommy John surgery that April, he hoped this issue was minor.
The doctor told him it would be a quick repair, maybe 4-5 weeks. But he had to see the full damage through the scope first.
“I woke up with that big ass brace on my leg, knowing I had a full repair and I don't think I've ever been that destroyed,” Travinski said. “At that point it was my third surgery in 14 months and I thought, damn, I’ve got to wait another five months to be back healthy?
"I just kept weighing my options. Like, is this really worth the mental toll of doing this every five months just to keep trying to do it again, again and again?”
Travinski appeared in 33 games last season, going 15 for 62 at the plate after no training in the fall. Six of those 15 hits were home runs.
LSU right-hander Ty Floyd hugged him a little tighter after LSU's season ended in the Hattiesburg regional.
“I thought he wasn't coming back,” Floyd said. “But whenever I got to see him in the locker room at the beginning of the year or beginning of the fall, I was really excited because I knew he could bring a lot to this team.”
LSU coach Jay Johnson talked to him at the end of the season, convincing him to stay because of the talent that he was bringing in and the potential to win a championship. Travinski went to the Cape Cod League briefly before he went through his first full fall of training at LSU.
When Johnson was asked about Travinski’s recent success leading into the Baton Rouge regional, he had to stop the reporter from proposing an underdog narrative.
“He’s a real player,” Johnson said. “This isn’t some feel-good story, it’s feel-good in the sense that he put the team ahead of himself. But when it was his time, he's taken off and he's been one of our best players.”
Travinski went on to have a big weekend at the plate, going 6 for 14 with two home runs, one double, drawing two walks and tallying five RBIs.
It's like he said before: Act like how you want to be.
"I've always had issues with overthinking and not trusting myself, especially when I'm hitting," Travinski said. "But the older I got, the more I realized I am pretty good. I'm just going to let it run its course.”