Saul Garza was this near-mythic figure when he arrived at LSU last fall.
A rattlesnake-shooting, home-run clubbing, bigger-than-life legend straight off the dusty Texas prairie. A cinch to be the Tigers’ new catcher, Garza added to his persona when he started short-circuiting sections of the video board behind Alex Box Stadium’s left field fence by banging mammoth home runs off it.
But as is often the case, the facts weren’t as good as the story they spawned. The deconstruction of the Garza legend started in October when he suffered a knee injury in practice.
Who's starting, how to watch and what to watch for in game one of LSU and Florida State's super regional.
“It was a ball to my right,” Garza said Friday, the day before LSU’s NCAA super regional against Florida State. “When I went to block it I felt a click. I knew it was locked. I went to have the MRI the next day.”
The diagnosis: a torn meniscus. Bad enough, but an examination revealed that it was an extension of an old LCL tear. A typical five-week rehabilitation time turned into five months.
“He wasn’t able to swing a bat until January,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He wasn’t able to squat in a catcher’s stance until mid March. All he could do was DH and he got off to an awful start. Not until sometime in April did he really start to feel confident and who he was as a ballplayer.”
It turned out, Garza wasn’t all myths and tall tales swapped along the dugout railing. It turned out, he was a heck of a player after all. And over the past six weeks or so, he has been one of the most amazing comeback stories ever to come out of the LSU baseball program.
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All our 401Ks should be rising as fast as Garza’s batting average. His number was bumping along well below the notorious “Mendoza Line” at .188 on April 23 after an 0-1 whiff against Lamar. But his average has rocketed up to .309 entering Saturday’s play, as Garza has batted a torrid .417 (30 of 72) in the 20 games since.
The past 11 games, starting with LSU’s regular season-ending series against Auburn, he’s been even hotter, with 10 multi-hit games and a blazing average of .529 (22 of 42). The Tigers have gone 8-3 in that span, including a 3-0 mark to win last weekend’s NCAA Baton Rouge regional.
To Mainieri, it’s no coincidence.
“Your catcher is the most important guy on the field outside of the pitcher,” he said. “The catcher is the only position where everybody is looking at him. What that player does is the torch bearer for the team. How he hustles, his caliber of play, his enthusiasm, his leadership. And it’s the most difficult position to play.
“You can’t win without a high-caliber catcher. I think Saul has taken it to a much higher level, and because of that our team’s played a lot better.”
Freshman pitchers Cole Henry and Landon Marceaux came to LSU together after waiting on professional careers. They supported each other through injuries, and they will start the first two games of the super regional against Florida State.
Some know-it-all sportswriter (OK, me) decided round about the Southeastern Conference tournament that Mainieri was being foolish not to install Garza in the top five in LSU’s batting order.
The catcher rose to sixth in the order in the regional, but he anchors the bottom part of LSU’s lineup like the statue of Big Tex at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. For opposing pitchers, getting through the top five in the Tigers’ order is like climbing a rocky mountain expecting to find a tranquil valley on the other side, only to reach the summit and find Mount Garza staring them in the face.
Did we mention he really is a big man, 6-foot-3, 229 pounds? He makes for a big target behind the plate, and pitchers like a big target.
“He’s ginormous,” said freshman Cole Henry, LSU’s Game 1 starter.
For his part, Garza has tried to stay within himself and not be the home-run launching machine he was at Howard College, where he knocked 23 out of the yard last season (no word on the state of the San Angelo, Texas, school’s scoreboard).
“I think at first I was trying to do too much,” Garza said. “Hit the scoreboard and break it. But now, I’ve just thrown that plan out the window because it wasn’t working for me. I’m trying to stick to what the coaches are telling me, getting feedback from the rest of the players after they see a pitcher. Not do too much. Just hit the ball hard somewhere and find a hole.
Besides, “Once they put that net cover up there I figured there was no point in trying to hit it if it wasn’t going to break.”
When Florida State arrived at Alex Box Stadium Friday afternoon, LSU coach Paul Mainieri embraced the team's left-handed ace.
He will shoot a rattlesnake for you, though, if it presents a danger. Growing up on a ranch in Edinburg, Texas, he’s had to take out a few.
“I have quite a few dogs and I didn’t want them to get hurt,” Garza explained, “so you have to kill the rattlesnakes.”
He sent pictures of his quarry to Mainieri.
“I think it came up on my visit here,” Garza said. “He got a kick out of it. ‘Nothing like a Texas boy shooting rattlesnakes,’ he said.”
Or getting hits. Lots of them. Just when the Tigers need them most.
The Advocate's LSU beat team predicts the outcome of the Tiger's weekend super regional series against Florida State.