By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Away from the diamond, Mike Papierski carries himself with the stoic, down-to-earth personality of a Midwestern backup.
But behind the plate, LSU’s pitchers know a different Pap entirely.
“He’s quiet? You think he’s quiet?” Alex Lange scoffed incredulously. “He’s happy Pappy. It’s like you can’t get Pap to shut up. When he’s in a good mood, everyone is in a good mood.”
Whether at the dish or behind it, the junior backstop is putting together an NCAA Tournament that’s been anything but quiet.
Papierski is 6-for-13 during LSU’s unbeaten six-game tournament stretch with two home runs, nine RBI and seven runs scored. He drove in the game-winning run in both of LSU’s super regional victories while maintaining his normal standard of defensive excellence throughout.
For LSU coach Paul Mainieri, Papierski’s campaign feels eerily similar to Micah Gibbs’ 2009 season. Playing on a star-studded team, Papierski, like Gibbs, has been the Tigers’ unsung hero while anchoring things at the sport’s most crucial defensive position.
“You catcher is always your unsung hero,” the coach said. “You don’t notice when you have an outstanding catcher until you don’t have an outstanding catcher. You don’t notice until he’s retrieving balls from the backstop constantly and teams are stealing you blind.”
A tireless worker, Papierski has always excelled at the dirty work that comes with the often thankless position. Whether it’s blocking a wicked 55-foot curveball from Lange or shutting down the opposing running game.
Even when he was scuffling at the plate, he never took those struggles behind it with him. It never diminished the pride he takes in his catching responsibilities
It’s the leadership aspects of the job that’ve taken the most work.
Mainieri recalls a freshman Papierski who didn’t talk much. At one point the coach actually started yelling at him just to try to get him to yell back.
“I used to have to try to get under his skin because he was so quiet,” Mainieri said.
That’s not the case anymore, as any of LSU’s hurlers will attest. He purposefully spends most of his time with LSU’s three starters, internalizing what makes them tick.
According to Papierski, the added emphasis came at the behest of Gibbs and Sean Ochinko, LSU’s undergraduate assistant who works with the catchers.
Papierski has taken the give-and-take nature of his role in the battery to heart. Lange and Co. appreciate that as much as the runs he saves with his defensive prowess or the ones he’s been driving in lately during his offensive surge.
“He’s great with all of us,” Lange said. “He knows when it’s time to jump someone’s ass and he knows when it’s time to coddle you a little bit.”
“He keeps us going. Pap is a crazy guy,” Eric Walker added. “He’s exciting to throw to. The way he finesse through a game and helps you out if you’re struggling, he’s a great companion.”
All that time spent with the men on the mound has paid dividends at the plate.
Gibbs, the Tigers’ first-year hitting coach, raves about Papierski’s “advanced” approach to each at-bat. He’s always been one of LSU’s most patient hitters, a side effect of spending so much time framing the strike zone, but lately it seems the switch hitters is thinking right along with the opposing pitcher.
“He’s just so advanced right now with his approach,” Gibbs said. “He goes up to me before an at-bat, tells me what he’s about to do and then does it. When you’re around pitchers all the time, you see what kind of patterns they get into.”
That development was on display for the world to see Saturday night.
With LSU trailing Florida State 4-2, Papierski led off the bottom of the fifth inning. The Seminoles had tacked on a run in the top half of the inning, and he had a hunch lefty Tyler Holton would try to sneak a fastball by him to get ahead in the count.
Turns out he was right.
Papierski got the inside fastball he was sitting on, and he didn’t miss it. Batting right handed, he crushed the longest home run by an LSU player in TD Ameritrade Park to date, clearing the bullpen behind the left-field wall entirely.
Across three College World Series trips, it was only the third home run hit by a Tiger since the cavernous ball park opened in 2011. It was his ninth home run of the season and sixth since the Alabama series, the market turning point of LSU’s season, began on April 27.
“Hopefully he’s not done,” shortstop Kramer Robertson smiled. “Happy Pap is a good Pap. There’s good results when he’s happy, so we keep Pap happy.”
LSU’s unsung hero has had plenty of reason to smile of late.