Friday wasn’t the first time LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri ever had to walk back some of his preseason optimism.
The two player Mainieri tabbed the week before as major league talent — catcher Saul Garza and pitcher Zack Hess — have had some struggles since then.
Hess, the Tigers' projected Friday night pitcher, is on the shelf with a groin strain. Garza, however, is headed in the other direction. He's trending upward.
Mainieri has his sights set on Garza, a one-year transfer from Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, as the No. 3 hitter on opening night Feb. 15 against UL-Monroe. But Garza is still in comeback mode from major knee surgery, having gone three months without taking any cuts.
“Coming off not swinging for a few months, I was kind of iffy on how shaky I was going to be, and I was shaky in the beginning,” admitted Garza, who began a swing progression Dec. 27.
“Coach Mainieri just said to keep my confidence up. It’s tough not swinging for three months and getting back against the level of competition we’re facing with our pitching staff. I had to trust it, have confidence in myself. Luckily things have been working out.”
Reports out of scrimmages didn’t sound all that bad. Garza, who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, hit an opposite-field grand slam during last Sunday’s fan day scrimmage, and he blasted another into the left-field bleachers Wednesday. Apparently, those were the exceptions — but Mainieri did say Friday that Garza recently has showed progress.
“I didn’t expect him to look as rusty with the bat after not playing since the beginning of October, but he really struggled this week even though he hit the two home runs,” Mainieri said. “He struck out a lot, and his mechanics were a little bit messed-up.
“(Hitting coach) Sean Ochinko has done some great work with him, and he’s looked a lot better the last few scrimmages. He’s going to be an impact hitter for us, and hopefully by the start of the season his timing will be back, and he’ll be seeing the ball, and it will make a big difference.”
Mainieri had good reason to be optimistic in calling Garza a future major leaguer. Not only does he bring a powerful bat — 23 home runs last year — he’s a strong defensive catcher.
He will serve as designated hitter for the first six weeks until his recovery from meniscus surgery is complete.
Teammates are as excited as Mainieri about Garza's prowess at the plate, behind it and in the dugout.
“For the first few weeks I thought he was a junior. That shows how mature he is,” shortstop Josh Smith said. “He acts older than his age. He’s going to bring a lot of pop to our lineup. He’s a good dude, good in the locker room, and he’s a leader.”
Said pitcher Todd Peterson: “I love him. He’s going to be a big addition behind the plate, first base or DH-ing. Off the field, he’s a great team guy. I threw to him early in the fall before his injury. He’s a big body. He gets low and frames pitches well.”
Garza was fine for the first 10 days of preseason camp until his knee locked up and was diagnosed as a meniscus tear. Mainieri said a doctor later determined it was an extension of a previous tear.
To protect Garza’s future, the entire meniscus was sutured rather than clipped, requiring a four-month rehab instead of five weeks. He was cleared last week to run, cut and turn on the bases.
Mainieri had thoughts about playing Garza at first base but said he decided not to risk it.
Garza might have gotten to LSU sooner if he hadn’t flown under everyone’s radar coming out of Edinburg, Texas, deep near the Mexico border and 600 miles from Baton Rouge.
He batted .530 with 10 doubles, eight triples, three homers and 33 RBIs and was named Rio Grande Valley hitter of the year as a senior.
Howard College was his best offer until the St. Louis Cardinals picked him in the 31st round of the 2017 MLB draft. Suddenly, four-year college offers started piling up, but he chose to honor his commitment.
In addition to his home run surge, Garza led Howard with 66 runs batted in and batted .378 with a .486 on-base percentage. He wasn’t the primary defensive catcher, but he threw out two of seven on steal attempts and had two errors in 153 chances.
Once LSU got into the picture, the recruiting didn’t last long.
“The plan initially was to leave (Howard) after one year,” Garza said. “When LSU called, I couldn’t say no. They were the first big program to have me visit. Once I came to campus, I fell in love with it and committed on my visit.”
Early on, Garza saw catching as a route to playing time, and got lots of training since his older brother, Sam, was a pitcher. They played together Saul’s first two seasons at North Edinburg High School.
“Growing up, I had to catch him at home,” Garza said. “Seventh grade is when I really started catching and fell in love with it because nobody else wanted to. I caught his no-hitter in high school, which was a pretty special moment.”
Garza said he’s expecting Sam, a physical therapy student at Texas A&M, in the stands wearing purple and gold when the Aggies visit in early April. By then Garza hopes to be locked in as the Tigers' regular catcher.
“He still tells me he can outhit me,” Garza laughs. “We have a good brotherly competition.
“My knee feels fine. I’m 100 percent pain free. I’ve been locked in with coach Ochinko, and all the guys, we’ve been talking about our swings. Right now, I’m feeling comfortable.”