OMAHA, Neb. — It’s gotten to a point where if you ask an LSU baseball player how impressed he was with Zack, the only possible response is “Which one?”
On one side there’s Zack with a K. And in a game where “K” means “strikeout,” that’s fitting. Freshman right-hander Zack Hess has been LSU’s most electric player in the College World Series, saving or winning every one of LSU’s three wins and notching eight of his nine outs via strikeouts with no hits allowed.
On the other side there’s Zach with a H. And in a game where “H” means “hit,” that’s fitting too. Freshman centerfielder Zach Watson has been LSU’s most consistent player in the College World Series, leading the team and the tournament with eight hits and a home run as he’s hitting .500 for the week.
So after LSU’s 3-1 win over No. 1 Oregon State Friday, when Watson went 3-for-3 with a walk and a run and Hess recorded a five out save with four strikeouts, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri started running out of praise for both Zack and Zach.
“I hope he gets to pitch a few more times,” Mainieri said about Hess. “He threw 23 pitches, mostly strikes. He didn’t even throw that many breaking balls. When you’re throwing it 95-96 mph, usually the fastball is good enough.”
“I’m running out of adjectives to describe Zach Watson,” Mainieri added. “He’s getting better every day. He’s getting smarter. He’s getting more experienced. A calm, cool customer, man. He believes in himself and I believe in him. He’s going to be a great player for us. And he already is a great player for us.”
But the freshmen standouts weren’t limited to Zacks and Zachs Friday. Third baseman Josh Smith took a pitch for a ride over the right-field bullpen, headlining a 2-for-4, two-RBI day with a seventh inning solo home run. And first baseman Jake Slaughter had a nice afternoon of his own, going 1-for-3 with a walk from the nine hole.
In other words, three freshmen combined for six of the Tigers’ seven hits Friday and a fourth freshmen finished the eighth and ninth innings with four strikeouts in five at-bats. Pretty good if you ask Mainieri.
“We have very inordinately poised freshmen,” Mainieri said. “I don’t think there’s any stage that’s too big for them. I think they’re all very level-headed kids that are bright. They love the game. They take to coaching. And they believe in themselves and they go out there and perform and it’s a wonderful thing to see. Makes me feel pretty good about our future.”
Hess’ save was in exercise in relying on the heater. Hess said that pitching coach Alan Dunn had a plan for him, and that plan was to work the fastball as frequently as he could. Dunn’s plan, in effect, was to keep throwing fastballs until Oregon State’s hitters proved they could hit it. That plan included throwing 12 straight fastballs to open the ninth inning, recording one strikeout and forcing a flyout without revealing a breaking ball.
And why would they, catcher Michael Papierski asked.
“They couldn’t catch up to it,” Papierski said. “Why would we change anything? He was hitting his spots, and that’s all you’ve got to do with that fastball.”
Careful not to come off as too cocky, Hess didn’t commit to describing his fastball as “unhittable.” But he did admit that he was confident in his command Friday and was able to locate his fastball away with ease. Keeping the ball on the outside of the plate versus a team like Oregon State is paramount, and Hess said he thought that was his key to success.
As for Watson, the success has been more gradual. The centerfielder went hitless in LSU’s College World Series opener versus Florida State. But in the following three games, Watson has broken out for eight hits, three runs, two RBI a home run and a double.
“I was a little nervous my first game. But I got used to everything. I got used to the background and just tried to play the baseball I know how to play.”
Having overcome his nerves, Watson is embodying the attitude Smith attributed to the 2017 LSU baseball team’s freshman class: No environment is too big or too intimidating. Just as Mainieri said, these guys are ready to contribute, and they’re doing it.
And Hess and Watson are a huge part of that.
“Both of them. They’re both freak athletes,” Smith said. “I can’t even say anything about them. They’re awesome to play with and they bring so much energy to the team and help us win every game.”