By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
A great centerfielder can be like a hot goaltender.
Run down enough lasers in the gap, booming would-be doubles near the wall or bloopers behind second base, and it begins to demoralize the offense.
After a while, doubt begins to creep into their mind. You start to aim your proverbial shot, instead of just confidently letting it rip and allowing the chips to fall where they may. Too much thinking, not enough playing.
“It’s a game changer,” smiles Zach Watson. “They get to the point where they’re like ‘What are we doing wrong?’ and it gets in their head.”
The true freshman center fielder has been the breakout star of LSU’s undefeated romp through the postseason that created a Baton Rouge Super Regional showdown with Mississippi State, set to begin Saturday night at Alex Box Stadium.
Watson put on a defensive clinic at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, chasing down everything and anything like a heat-seeking missile within the spacious confined of the Hoover Met.
Then, thanks to a minor tweak, the wiry-strong rookie crushed four home runs in two games at the Baton Rouge Regional. Overall he’s hitting .316 with eight home runs and 34 RBI.
It was his defensive prowess that wowed the large conglomeration of scouts assembled for the SEC Tournament, according to Nolan Cain, LSU’s recruiting coordinator who coaches the Tiger outfielders. By this observer’s estimation, he saved his pitching staff somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 total bases.
“He certainly was the buzz of the scouting community in Hoover,” Cain says. “I went up there on one of the days we didn’t play and every scout wanted to ask me about Watson. ‘What’s his 60 time?’ And ‘When did he start playing center field.’ Been real special out there for us.”
The answer to the second question would shock any observer: less than a calendar year.
WATSON’S PATH TO LSU is rooted in one of the great postseason frustrations in the program’s recent history.
Five years ago, Stony Brook shocked the world by coming into Alex Box Stadium and winning two out of three games to take the 2012 Baton Rouge Super Regional.
For LSU coach Paul Mainieri, the weekend was illuminating. He’d watch Stony Brook center fielder Travis Jankowski and his cohorts run down countless would-be hits while his outfield, which at times consisted of Raph Rhymes, Mason Katz and Alex Edward, looked slow by comparison.
Between that series, the implementation of the BBCOR bats in 2011 and the stringent roster limits, the coach decided it was time to change his philosophy when it came to recruiting outfielders.
Speed and athleticism were now the name of the game. The sport was changing, and it was time to change with it.
“When you’re able to find a guy with speed who can also hit, boy, now you’ve really hit the jackpot,” Mainieri says. “So many guys with speed that can hit and have great arms are going to sign professionally out of high school.”
In the years that followed LSU deployed more fleet-footed outfields manned by the likes of Andrew Stevenson, Mark Laird, Jake Fraley and Antoine Duplantis. It also led to the staff heavily recruiting a quick-fast infielder from West Ouachita High School in Northeast Louisiana.
There was a collective sigh of relief when Watson, a three time All-State selection, went undrafted in last summer’s MLB Draft. Even considering his immense physical gifts, few could’ve predicted how quickly he’s make an impact.
AS FALL PRACTICE began, there still wasn’t a clear role for Watson on a team that returned eight everyday starters. Early on, he split practice time between the infield and outfield.
That didn’t last long.
“Coach said ‘Let’s see what you look like at short.’ Then he sent me straight to the outfield,” Watson laughs.
Today Watson freely admits that he was lost in the outfield early on. He’d play there for parts of two games in high school, spending all of about five innings in right field way back during his freshman year. He’d be a shortstop and closer in the years since.
It was a struggle from the start. Watson didn’t track balls well off the bat, and catchable flies dropped in behind him, in front of him and everywhere in between. He played doubles into triples while learning the cardinal rule of playing outfield: your first step is always back.
“I had no clue,” Watson says. “It was crazy because I’d never been out there and didn’t know what to do.”
Frustration set in for an outwardly confident ballplayer used to being the star, but he never quit working. While teammates hit in the batting cages, Watson showed up early to fall practices to take fly balls and Fungos in the outfield.
Mainieri insisted he saw something special amidst Watson’s early struggles. He saw potential that could be realized as soon as the approaching season.
Veteran teammates weren’t nearly as convinced.
“I guess Coach knew, but nobody thought he’d even be any kind of factor this year at all,” shortstop Kramer Robertson says. “He was raw. He had talent, but I didn’t think he’d be ready to contribute this year. Thought he might have to fight to make the travel squad.”
“I remember Coach Mainieri telling us he saw something in him,” second baseman Cole Freeman adds. “Maybe he’s just got a knack for it, because I never would’ve expected what he’s doing now. Maybe as a junior I could see it. But not this year.”
But Mainieri had a feeling the talented rookie had a role to play in the 2017 season. Not right away, for sure, but some time down the road.
He pushed back on the notion of Watson being “raw,” recalling that Mark Laird wasn’t much of an outfielder when he showed up on campus, either. In that case, it was because Laird had never had to go back for a ball because of how small his high school field was.
Still, Mainieri envisioned Watson — a taller Laird lookalike, sharing a No. 9 jersey and hometown — providing a spark into a stagnant left field battle, not in center.
That changed with one swing of the bat during a 5-4 loss at McNeese State on March 8. LSU was playing no-doubles defense in the first inning, meaning the outfielders were positioned deep, but Cowboy cleanup hitter Matt Gallier doubled over Antoine Duplantis’ head nonetheless.
That got the wheels spinning in the mind of a coach who is never afraid to tinker if there’s an area of his team that can be improved.
“I wondered, Would Zach Watson have caught that ball?” Mainieri recalls. And so began an experiment that’d change the Tigers’ season.
Watson entered the lineup for the final non-conference weekend before SEC play began and never looked back. Aided by pointers from Duplantis and Greg Deichmann, his fellow outfielders, Watson hit the ground running.
Once he stopped thinking, he started flying.
“He was real raw,” Cain says. “It just takes time, especially with a kid with that much athleticism. Sometimes you’ve just got to let them take as many reps as possible and let athletes be athletes. He certainly has done that.”
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG with some good-natured ribbing of a rookie hot shot.
Teammates have been poking fun at Watson for a while now. First about his thick, down-home southern accent. Then about his overuse of the word ‘awesome,’ especially as media interviews have become commonplace for the blossoming star.
Last week he provided another cache of ammunition that’ll probably never run out: sitting at an NCAA Tournament podium, Watson informed the world that his regional power surge was due to finally holding onto the bat with two hands all the way through his swing at the behest of Micah Gibbs.
“You’re never going to live this down,” Mainieri chided, as teammates and reporters cracked up.
There’s one group on the team who’ve never laughed at Watson: the pitchers.
Nobody is more appreciative of good defense than the man on the mound. And for Jared Poche’ and Eric Walker, LSU’s two pitch-to-contact starters, every awe-inspiring catch earns a heartfelt show of appreciation once the Tigers get back in the dugout.
“I think it’s his instincts that’ve come a long ways,” Walker says. “It definitely saves you. I thank him after every one.”
For Poche’, Watson’s quick ascension is comparable to the centerfielder whose accolades most people around the program doubted would ever be replicated.
Andrew Stevenson, nicknamed Steve-O, was a defensive wizard from his freshman year on at LSU, even if his offensive game didn’t develop until later on. He was a gazelle crossed with a crash-test dummy to create a human highlight reel.
“I don’t want to put these two names in the same sentence, but when we had Steve-O here, I knew any ball hit to center field was getting caught,” Poche’ says. “Watson is giving me that same feeling.”
Watson does it with pure, unadulterated footspeed, for sure, laser-timed at 6.47 seconds in the 60-yard dash. On the professional scouting scale, which grades from 20-80, Watson’s speed is a 70 or 75 on the basis of that time, considered above average for a big leaguer.
But what’s blown so many away is the fact that he reads balls off the bat like a seasoned outfielder, not a teenager who’d never more than a few innings out there before last fall.
Watson gets tremendous jumps on balls hit in every direction, including the directly-over-his-head line drives that’re considered the toughest read for any outfielder.
“Paul always says ‘I can get anybody to go catch it on one hop,’” Cain says. “He’s been a game changer out there for us, and you haven’t seen him misplay any balls.”
To close with a scary thought: He’s only going to get better.