Saul Garza smiled as he told a story at LSU baseball practice Tuesday.
Two days before, Garza said he caught a bullpen session for Clay Moffitt. One errant pitch skipped through the dirt, but Garza slid on his knees, stopping the ball in front of him.
“That was the first ball I blocked in a while,” Garza said, still smiling.
Ahead of the Tigers weekend series in Georgia, LSU hosts in-state Nicholls on Wednesday night.
During a practice last October, a few months into his LSU career after he transferred from Howard College, Garza slid to his right to block a pitch. As he did, he tore his meniscus.
The last few weeks, Garza hesitated to block balls in the dirt, unsure if his knee could hold up.
So blocking the pitch from Moffitt marked a significant point in Garza’s progression to full health — and Wednesday against Nicholls, six months after his injury, Garza will start for the first time.
“Coach (Paul) Mainieri just told me,” Garza said. “I’m excited.”
When LSU baseball travels to Georgia this weekend, both teams will be ranked in the top 10.
Garza impressed Mainieri during fall practice. The sophomore showed soft hands, blocked the ball well and hit home runs. A few of them dislodged wires in LSU’s scoreboard. He’s 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, but he can straighten his legs and place his palms on the ground. He also displayed a strong arm.
“If you've ever watched that guy throw to second,” catcher Brock Mathis said, “it's like watching a bazooka cannon.”
Until he hurt his knee, Garza competed with Mathis to start at catcher. Mathis has started every game for LSU this season while Garza spent most of his time as the designated hitter, batting .270 without a home run.
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In the dugout during games, Garza watched Mathis handle the LSU pitching staff. He listened to Mathis communicate with pitching coach Alan Dunn between innings, trying to learn what Dunn calls in certain situations.
He found it difficult to adjust to better pitching without catching at the same time.
“Hopefully once I start catching, once I start seeing the ball, that's going to help out,” Garza said.
Garza began catching bullpens last week once doctors cleared him to squat. He has not caught every LSU pitcher, and though he will watch some of them on video, others he will not catch in practice before seeing them in a game.
LSU baseball finished a sweep of Kentucky on Sunday afternoon during the first Southeastern Conference series of the year.
Against Nicholls, Garza will catch about four innings — Mainieri will ask him every inning how his knee feels — before Mathis enters the game.
“It's going to be a little different, but Saul is one of my best buddies and he has worked hard,” Mathis said. “I know he's going to do a great job.”
Garza cannot catch a full game yet, but his return gives LSU more flexibility in its lineup, especially at designated hitter. As the season continues, he and Mathis will continue to split playing time.
“This is not an indication Saul has taken over as the starting catcher,” Mainieri said. “But I'm anxious to see Saul back in there, and it will give me a little bit more comfort knowing we have him available to catch in case anything were to happen. Maybe Brock doesn't have to catch all the time now.”