Nolan Cain inserted a baseball into a pitching machine aimed low at the artificial turf along the third base line in Alex Box Stadium.
The ball rocketed downward toward catcher Mike Papierski, whose assignment required he keep it from scooting past, preferably blocking it in the middle of his chest protector as Cain — LSU’s catching coach — frequently instructs.
Papierski, along with Jordan Romero, are tasked with taming the Southeastern Conference’s most aggressive team when Vanderbilt arrives Thursday for a three-game series with a conference-leading 49 stolen bases, 70 steal attempts and 24 sacrifice bunts.
“They see (a pitch) in the dirt and they’re going to take off,” said Cain, who’s also in charge of scouting each LSU opponent. “They want to dictate the tempo of the game, kind of like some basketball teams do. They want to keep the pressure on you, they want to go, go, go and cause craziness.”
Scouting reports read that future LSU opponents had a propensity to use Papierski’s glove location to tip pitches, giving it an inherent advantage against the Tigers pitching staff.
“So we had gone more to a late set-up,” Cain explained, “which in turn caused (Papierski) to start bouncing around.”
Such activity in the seconds before a pitch is released put Papierski in a predicament. His butt went higher and his feet grew wider apart, placing him in a difficult position to block the baseball.
Still employing this strategy, Papierski was pulled in favor of Romero to begin the fourth inning of LSU’s 8-5 loss to Auburn on Saturday after three Alex Lange wild pitches — two of which came in a four-run third inning.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Papierski was attempting to pick the balls, as a first baseman would on a low throw from an infielder, instead of using his body.
“He almost looked like a hockey goalie,” Cain said.
Romero caught all of the remaining 22 innings, permitting one wild pitch and one passed ball. At 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, Romero is bulkier and wider than Papierski, who puts 210 pounds on a narrower 6-3 frame.
The junior college transfer’s body type permits that, as long as he beats the pitch to a spot in the dirt, his chest will absorb the pitch and it will not roll to the backstop.
Papierski returned in Tuesday’s 11-1 win against Southern, throwing out a would-be base-stealer and picking another runner off first in his nine-inning outing.
“It’s hard to go from one thing you do your whole life to changing it like that,” Papierski said following the game.
But it was required. After a meeting with Cain and Mainieri to discuss a new plan, Papierski now sets up with his feet shoulder-width apart and sets up earlier in the pitch sequence, which eliminates his bouncing.
“A little thing,” Papierski said Wednesday. “We worked on it in the bullpen (Wednesday) when I was catching Lange. It gets me down. When I go to block a ball, I get to my knees a lot quicker. I can go right and left a lot quicker. It feels a lot better.”
Mainieri hadn’t decided who will catch Thursday. Both Romero and Papierski are likely to see time against the Commodores, though the onus isn’t just on those two to control the running game. Pitchers will need to look runners off and be quick to the plate while infielders hold baserunners tight.
And, as Mainieri reminded, Vanderbilt’s been thrown out stealing 21 times — a stat that also leads the conference.
“I like the challenge,” Romero said. “I like throwing people out. Even if it’s in the dirt, I’ll pick it up and throw it. And I challenge them to do that. I’m going to come up throwing as hard as I can, right on the money. It’ll definitely be a challenge going into it.”