HOOVER, Ala. — Zach Watson barley got any sleep Friday night, and it was only partially because a heavy fog forced LSU to schedule an early morning wake-up call on Saturday morning.
The LSU center fielder only got four hours of shuteye because hitting was on his mind — or lack thereof, rather.
Watson doesn’t have the statistics of someone having a bad year per se. He’s kept his batting average north of .300, but his productivity hasn’t improved upon or even matched what he did during a Freshman All-American season.
An oblique injury led to a slow start, but Watson entered Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament Semifinal against Arkansas having not homered since an April 3 contest against Nicholls State, a drought of 30 games without seeing a ball clear the fence.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, probably four hours, because I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my swing,” Watson said. “It seemed like everything was going to third base and I was pulling off. I was talking to my dad, and he told me a story about when I was a little kid and my hands were so locked. He told me to hold the bat a bit looser, and starting with BP, I started hitting the ball in the air. It was a mental and physical thing.”
It rained Saturday in a literal sense. And a little while after the skies finally cleared from an 86-minute delay, one more bolt of lightning flashed through the Hoover sky.
Watson turned on a 3-1 fastball from Arkansas right-hander Isaiah Campbell and belted a two-run blast in the sixth inning that turned a 1-0 deficit into the 2-1 tally that went final.
The home run was as much relief for Watson as it was exhilaration for LSU. Watson offered a promising glimpse of the budding superstar who homered four times in last year’s Baton Rouge Regional and laced the key hit in a super regional comeback against Mississippi State.
“Watty is one of our best players, and you remember what he did last year in the NCAA Tournament,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He played great. We need him to play great. We need a lot of guys to play great if we’re going to do anything beyond this weekend.”
LSU is counting on Saturday’s go-ahead blast serving as the catalyst for more postseason magic to come with the NCAA Tournament set to get underway this Friday at a location still to be determined.
The truth is LSU is short on dynamic offensive players heading into the tournament this season compared to last. Watson was just one of many power threats in the 2017 lineup, but his mediocre sophomore campaign is a reason why the current club has dealt with the ups and downs it has.
Power hitters can be like 3-point shooters in basketball in that all it takes is seeing one go through the net to begin a hot streak.
“Confidence is the most fragile thing there is for all athletes, especially in this sport,” Mainieri said. “I think that swing will do wonders for Zach going forward. His bat was lightning going through the hitting zone there. It reminded me of the swing he put on Riley Self against Mississippi State last year to drive in the tying run. Self tried to get inside on him and his hands flew through there to smoke that base hit.
“Today was the first time I’ve seen Watson show that bat speed in a little bit of time, and that’s because of confidence. We might need to hire his father as our hitting coach.”
That last bit is clearly tongue and cheek, but few players can help LSU carry over its miracle run in Hoover into another NCAA Tournament push like a red-hot Watson and the return of his lightning-quick bat.