LSU coach Paul Mainieri is a notorious tinkerer when it comes to his teams, and he’ll make his first big changes of the season Friday against Wichita State.
Sophomore Antoine Duplantis, who’d started 12 of the first 13 games of the season in center field, will shift to left field Friday to allow Brennan Breaux or Zach Watson to start in center field.
Mainieri got the idea to make the switch in the first inning of Wednesday’s game against McNeese State, when Duplantis couldn’t quite chase down an RBI double to deep center field.
“I hold center field to a very high level of expectation,” Mainieri said. “Although it certainly would’ve been a better-than-average catch last night, we’ve become accustomed to our center fielders making that catch in the first inning.”
That means Watson and Breaux will get a shot to make the well-above-average catch, which also means that for the time being, Beau Jordan is no longer serving as a platoon starter against left-handed pitching.
While Breaux is probably the more polished offensive weapon, Watson’s defensive skills intrigue Mainieri and the LSU staff, who want to see if the freshman can hold his own against a quality opponent.
“I’m very high on Zach Watson,” Mainieri said. “I think he’s an electric player. The only way we can find out if he’s ready to handle the SEC caliber of competition is to throw him out there and see if he can handle the Wichita State-type of competition as well.”
Mainieri acknowledged that this could be just a short-lived experiment.
“We could end up flip-flopping (Duplantis) right back into center field after a few games, I’m not sure yet,” Mainieri said. “We just thought this was a weekend we should see how it looks and whether or not it’s an upgrade for our team.”
One change that does not appear to be short-term is the one for LSU’s junior catcher.
Michael Papierski, who ditched his switch-hitting approach to bat strictly as a right-hander at the end of fall practice, has struggled lately at the plate. Starting Thursday, he went back to batting from the left side against right-handed pitchers.
Papierski is batting just .267 with seven strikeouts in 30 at-bats. He has particularly struggled against right-handed sliders, which he’s not accustomed to seeing from the right-handed batter’s box.
“I asked him the last time he saw right-on-right, and he said he was 8 years old. So technically, until last year, he’d never seen a slider right-on-right,” LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs said.
The move was prompted by Papierski’s success late last season, when he hit exclusively from the right side of the plate in the NCAA tournament with success.
But Papierski said he saw curveballs, not sliders, in the tournament. He never appeared to be fully committed to giving up switch-hitting. He went back to hitting from the left side this past fall before finally agreeing to give it up at the end of fall drills.
“I’m definitely more comfortable ... because I’ve done it so long — my whole life,” Going back to it wasn’t hard. I’m pretty happy, I’m ready to go. We’ll see what happens.”
Mainieri is hoping for a spark of some sort. The Tigers have lost three of their last four, with two of the losses coming in one-run games.
“Sometimes it’s one little play, so you tweak a little bit here and there to see if maybe you can upgrade your team in a particular way that maybe that play gets made or that at bat becomes successful or that pitcher makes the pitch,” Mainieri said.