FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Zac Person does a poor job of burying the LSU fan within him.
He tries to conceal that lifelong obsession with the program during dream-come-true moments that unfold on the mound.
You’ve probably seen these inning-ending celebrations from the Tigers’ senior reliever.
His patented move — the one LSU fans are becoming accustomed to seeing from Mr. Eighth Inning — is using those long legs to stride to the dugout so quickly that one might think a pack of ravenous wolves were on his tail.
And when he gets there? Person high-fives his teammates so hard he leaves red marks.
“I try to hide how much of a fan I am deep down,” the Eunice native said, before admitting later that he often does a poor job of it.
These outbursts are rooted in a childhood passion for the Tigers and in a plight — he’s had three surgeries since the age of 12 — that even his own mother thought would end his pitching career.
All of this comes back in waves when he’s on the mound, in a tight game, during that eighth inning — hate for Southeastern Conference teams he’s loathed for years; the recovery from doctors chipping away bone in his elbow; and sleeping for months with a machine strapped to his surgically repaired right leg.
“This is basically what the last 21 years of my life was for — me ending up here,” Person said.
Where’s here? A clutch, late-inning pressure-craving pitcher on a team ranked No. 1 in the nation. That’s where.
“He’s just a fighter,” said Brad Person, Zac’s father. “He’s living his dream right now. There’s no stopping him.”
Person, a senior left-hander who transferred from LSU-Eunice last season, has evolved into a shutdown eighth-inning guy as the Tigers (19-2, 2-1) travel to play Arkansas (10-8, 0-3) in a three-game series starting Thursday here in chilly northwest Arkansas.
Person — pronounced “PEER-son” — has pitched a full eighth inning in seven of his 12 appearances this season, and he normally enters to start that frame and exits after retiring the final batter.
He’s pitched a perfect eighth inning in three of those seven tries — four, if you exclude an error — and has allowed just six base runners the in 27 batters he has faced in the eighth. In his last four full eighth-inning appearances, LSU led by two runs once and one run three times.
Most recently, he brought that eighth inning madness to the ninth. He replaced a struggling Jesse Stallings, entering with two on base and no one out in a tie game.
He retired three of four, including the final two with the bases loaded to keep it tied, firing off his patented celebration.
“He’s been one of the unsung heroes of our team,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s been fantastic in every way, shape or form.”
Mainieri envisioned Person being the eighth-inning setup man even before the season opener. It’s a role coaches groomed Person for last year. They even gave thought to using him as a closer this season.
He thrives under pressure. He craves it, said his mother, Tracey.
“This year, he seems like he wants it,” she said. “His goal is to make it to Omaha. That’s all he talks about. When they put him in and it’s tight, he performs better. When it’s close, he amazes me. I watch him and I think, ‘How did he do that?’ ”
The physical part of that answer is a fastball that hovers between 88 and 91 mph and a curveball that paints the edges. Mainieri said Person doesn’t have an out pitch. He has two.
“He keeps them guessing,” Mainieri said.
And the mental part? It comes from years of grinding and rehabbing. At three different times in his life, Tracey Person thought her son had thrown his last pitch.
He had surgery as a 12-year-old on a fractured growth plate in his throwing elbow. Doctors inserted a pin-like screw to hold two bones together. It did its job and then some.
The bones grew tight around the screw — tight enough to bury the screw so deeply that doctors had to use a sharp tool and chip off pieces of bone to remove it.
“Doctor said he’d probably not play again,” Tracey said. “It would be too much pain.”
Months of rehabilitation broke down scar tissue in the elbow, and Person developed into a strikeout-throwing stud of a pitcher for Eunice High. Entering his junior year, Person was a hot commodity, receiving interest from programs around the nation.
Then he tore his ACL while landing awkwardly after dunking a basketball. He missed his junior baseball season, a critical year for college baseball prospects.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s probably it,’ ” Person said.
His tune changed immediately after surgery, his mother said.
“I’m pitching again,” in the car ride from the hospital that day.
That night, he hooked up a machine to his right leg. He slept with it as it slowly moved the knee back and forth, preventing scar tissue from building. He did it for months. The real rehab followed, and Person pitched good enough as a senior in high school to land at LSU-Eunice.
He went 17-0 in two seasons at the junior college, helping lead the school to a national title in 2012 and a national championship runner-up finish the next year.
And now? Well, he’s living the dream. And acting like it.
A fan recently told him that he had “a lot of heart” on the mound, referring to his passionate and intense reactions and celebrations – especially against SEC teams.
“Being a fan of this place,” Person said from the Alex Box Stadium front lobby, “comes with hating all of the other schools. That is the Florida, Ole Miss, all them. If they’re in the SEC, I probably hate them.”
LSU (19-2, 2-1 SEC) vs. Arkansas (10-8, 0-3 SEC)
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Baum Stadium, Fayetteville, Arkansas
Rankings: LSU is ranked in the top 3 in every major college baseball poll. Arkansas is not ranked.
Projected starting pitchers:
- Thursday: LSU sophomore LHP Jared Poche’ (5-0, 2.32) vs. UA sophomore RHP Dominic Taccolini (3-2, 3.58)
- Friday: LSU freshman RHP Alex Lange (4-0, 1.45) vs. UA TBA
- Saturday: LSU freshman RHP Jake Godfrey (4-0, 2.33) vs. UA junior RHP Trey Killian (0-0, 0.84)
TV: SEC Network
Online Streaming: None.
Radio: WTGE 100.7 FM (Baton Rouge)
In-game updates: @DellengerAdv
What to watch: Second base. Jared Foster accomplished the rare feat in the two-run, 10-inning win over Southern – he had consecutive errors on routine groundballs. How will Foster handle a real, rowdy road environment at Arkansas? And what of LSU’s cold bats? The Tigers had three hits through seven innings against Southern.
Know your opponent: The Razorbacks began the season in some top-25 polls, but they’ve slipped out of all of them. Arkansas is last in the league in team ERA at 4.80, but lost two one-run games in Vanderbilt’s three-game sweep of the Hogs last weekend.
Mr. Eighth Inning
Zac Person has excelled as LSU’s set-up man, pitching a full eighth inning in seven of his 12 appearances. Here are his stats from those seven eighth inning appearances:
- Batters faced: 27
- Batters retired: 21
- Base runners: 6
- Perfect eighths: 3*
- Stranded runners: 5
*4 if you exclude an error
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.