By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Don’t look now, but Mike Papierski is once again getting hot at the plate as LSU plays its best baseball down the home stretch.
Papierski’s bread and butter will also be his work behind the dish. The way he manages LSU’s pitching staff, blocks balls in the dirt and shuts down the opposing running game with a laser for an arm.
But just like last season, LSU’s backstop is surging offensively as the Tigers make their move toward the postseason. Papierski homered twice to key LSU’s sweep of Auburn, including the dramatic game-winning blast in Friday’s 5-3 win.
“The one thing about Michael that I admire so much is that he understands the importance of his position defensively,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. So no matter what he does offensively, he’s going to show up and catch a good game.
“He’s going to do all the dirty work that you need to be a good team. When he hits, it’s a bonus. But you can see what he’s capable of doing.”
LSU has won eight of its last nine Southeastern Conference games to climb atop the SEC West — pending other results around the league.
During that stretch, Papierski has gone 9-for-30 at the plate with three home runs, nine RBI, five runs scored and drawn 10 walks. He’s delivered two game-winning hits, including Friday’s blast and a go-ahead single in the 11th inning of the series finale against Alabama.
That’s of course in addition to the steady, if not spectacular, brand of dirty work Papierski provides defensively even when his batting average hovers around the Mendoza line.
“All I can say is that he’s an extremely hard worker,” Mainieri said. “Nobody on our team works harder than Mike Papierski. He’s also the first guy here and the last one to leave, and success should come to the people who work at it with his determination.”
Beyond effort, the coach couldn’t point to any rhyme or reason as to why Papierski seems to hit better as the season goes on.
For instance, his postseason surge last season came after he gave up switch hitting and hit exclusively right handed. He did all of his damage this weekend batting lefty.
Whatever the reason, Papierski’s heater has helped spur an incredibly productive stretch for the bottom of the LSU order. Papierski and Zach Watson, LSU’s Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, drove in four of the team’s five runs with two-run homers Friday against Keegan Thompson.
The bottom of the order put forth an even more balanced effort against Casey Mize Saturday. From the sixth spot, Josh Smith, down through Beau Jordan, Papierksi and Watson, the bottom four went 6-for-8 against Mize as LSU chased him after four innings having allowed a season-high five earned runs.
At times this season LSU has been over reliant on Greg Deichmann and the top of the order to provide all the punch offensively. The development of a more circular lineup is music to the coach’s ears.
“If you want to be a good offensive team, you’ve got to be tough one through nine,” Mainieri said. “If you have a good nine hole hitter, than you have a good offensive team.”
Even in the afterglow of a monumental sweep, Mainieri’s mind shifted quickly to the midweek.
Those pesky midweek games have been a point of consternation for coaches and fans alike this season. LSU has gone just 7-6 so far this season, having been swept by in-state foes Tulane and UNO.
The Tigers close out the midweek stretch this Tuesday hosting Northwest Louisiana at Alex Box Stadium, and in order to avoid falling to .500 in those contests, Mainieri is putting the Johnny Wholestaff approach out to pasture.
Freshman Todd Peterson will get the ball against Northwestern State, Mainieri announced Saturday, with an eye toward potentially grooming the rookie as a fourth starter heading into the postseason.
“You’ve got to find out. You’ve got to run guys out there,” the coach said. “If Todd Peterson goes out there on Tuesday night and shows a mound presence like he’s the man in charge, and he goes out there and attacks the hitters, it could have a carryover into the postseason.”
Mainieri has made no secret of his frustration with LSU’s midweek pitching problems since moving Zack Hess to the bullpen.
Missing their top two relievers, the Tigers issued 10 walks and surrendered a 5-1 lead in a 7-6 loss to South Alabama last Tuesday.
“Unfortunately some of the veteran pitchers on our team haven’t performed up to the level we would’ve hoped,” Mainieri said. “If I’d have known we’d lose six games, I would’ve just gone through the growing pains with those young kids the whole way.
“You want to give your veterans the chances and the opportunities, but you go with the guys that you think can get it done. And I think some of those younger arms are doing it.”