Take a moment and do a Google search for “Zack Mathis LSU.”
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Click on the link and you’ll be taken to this new LSU baseball player’s bio page. You’ll find out he’s from Stockton, California, he’s a pocket battleship-sized 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, and that he came to LSU from San Joaquin Delta College, a junior college in his hometown at the northern end of the fertile San Joaquin Valley.
Of course, you won’t help but notice his photo. The picture of a young man smiling so broadly you fear his cranium may crack along its equator.
Now come on back, please. We have a story to tell.
Hitting coach Eddie Smith showed LSU's players a slideshow presentation during their first team meeting. He set a foundation for his expectations, and the Tigers have accepted his requests.
It’s hard to figure out who is happier for Mathis to be at LSU. Him, or the LSU coaches for whom he filled a critical hole in the Tigers’ roster.
Last summer, LSU needed a big-swinging infielder and Mathis needed a new home. He was drafted in the 38th round by the Minnesota Twins but decided to head downstate to play for Cal State Northridge. Then CSUN coach Greg Moore was fired. Mathis started lining up visits to Power Five schools when a coach from the Prospect League (a summer collegiate wood bat league in Illinois) called LSU coach Paul Mainieri to talk the infielder up.
“When we called (Mathis), he was on a visit to South Carolina,” Mainieri said. “He still had visits to Florida State and Texas Tech after that. Those are four pretty good schools when you throw LSU in there, so you figure there must be something to this.”
Mathis didn’t have to be sold on taking a recruiting visit to LSU. From first contact to stepping foot in Baton Rouge took four days.
“They (LSU) said, ‘Do you want to come on a visit?’ " Mathis recalled. "Why wouldn’t I want to come on a visit to LSU?
“I got pretty lucky.”
LSU freshman catcher Alex Milazzo lost his two front teeth when a fastball hit him his freshman year of high school. He returned to the field about two weeks later. He felt no reservations.
LSU was in need of some luck. In June, infielder Christian Cairo was already on campus when he had an 11th hour change of heart and decided to sign with the Cleveland Indians, who drafted him in the fourth round. Cairo was supposed to be LSU’s shortstop in the future. With him gone, LSU's infield was suddenly in chaos, and quality options were few. It was a desperate time.
“You’re always trying to have these backup plans for the draft,” LSU recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain said. “As it’s approaching, you’d like to have two or three kids on the hook, but it’s so difficult these days. Kids are committing as freshmen or sophomores in high school. Even junior college kids are committing in March. Roster management is critical.
“At some point you just have to jump blindly, but it’s been a great move for us. (Mathis is) a great kid with a great personality. Loves to play, appreciative. We’re excited about him.”
So excited that Mainieri has made no bones about starting Mathis, probably at third base but maybe eventually at short, announcing he expects to bat him third in the lineup Friday when the Tigers open the season against Indiana. That’s the spot Mathis occupied at San Joaquin, where he earned All-American honors posting some stellar two-year career numbers: .352 average, 14 home runs, 48 doubles and 134 RBIs in 99 games.
“He’s a really good player,” Mainieri said. “We’re very fortunate to have him.
“Sometimes the best things happen in the wake of disappointing things. We were very disappointed when the other kid (that would be Cairo; the wound apparently is still raw) decided that he was going to sign. He was already here and ready to start summer school. But as it turned out it’s probably been the best thing for us, because otherwise Zack wouldn’t be here.
“And Zack might be the best all-around player that we’re going to run out there. Sometimes it takes just getting a little bit lucky. And I think we got lucky.”
Mathis feels like the lucky one. He’s gone from the bare bones surroundings of junior college ball to LSU’s Fanfest exhibition on Feb. 1 that drew thousands to Alex Box Stadium. Thousands more, certainly, than watched Mathis play his whole time in junior college.
He had to help set up the field at San Joaquin. Hearing Mathis describe his giddiness over LSU’s top-notch facilities and support is a bit like Crash Davis describing his brief stint in the major leagues, “The Show,” in “Bull Durham”:
“I was in the show for 21 days once. The 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service …”
LSU has picked its starting rotation for the opening series against Indiana.
“LSU when I was younger was like, the best place to go,” Mathis said. “How could I say no? Then the stadium, the facilities, it was way better than where I was at.
“You come here and everyone’s taking care of you."
The prospect of having to play such a linchpin role in LSU’s lineup doesn’t faze Mathis. He possesses that trademark baseball player’s mellowness with a dollop of Joe Burrow-like swagger mixed in.
“I’m excited,” Mathis said. “There’s always nerves, but it’s how do you control them. If you control them the right way, they help you. I’m just ready to get going.
“I was glad I could change (schools). I felt I could play at the highest level already. It was like the universe opened up and it was like, ‘Here, here’s a big opportunity for you.’ ”
Then Mathis smiled.
He does that a lot these days.