LSU baseball was built on the long ball. The term “Gorilla Ball” was coined in Alex Box Stadium. Warren Morris’ shot to right field to win the College World Series is one of the most iconic moments in college baseball.
So what happened to LSU in 2018 that led to 48 home runs in 66 games — one year after the Tigers hit 69 in 72 games?
For one the team lost slugger Greg Deichmann to the MLB draft, and what LSU did return was struck down by injuries. Junior shortstop Josh Smith missed all but six games while junior center fielder Zach Watson struggled with an oblique injury and missed nine games.
The departures and injuries left LSU with an inexperienced lineup filled with contact hitters, and fix for coach Paul Mainieri was simple. Have senior outfielder Antoine Duplantis and Watson to return and sign the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation which is filled with traditional power hitters. Easier said than done for Mainieri, but it happened and its why LSU is considered the No. 1 team in the nation.
Saul Garza is expected to be one of the biggest difference-makers from the recruiting class. After hitting 23 home runs in junior college last season, Garza will be placed squarely in the middle of LSU’s lineup along with sophomore left fielder Daniel Cabrera, who hit eight home runs as a freshman.
Garza is set to start off the season as the Tigers DH after suffering a knee injury in the fall, but once his leg is fully healthy, he is likely to go back behind the plate as catcher. Garza said he was feeling really good before the knee injury and saw the team coming together in a positive manner.
“Once I went down, I was obviously pretty hurt,” Garza said at LSU media day Jan. 25. “I just wanted to be back out there with my team, but the support I got from the team, from the coaching staff, doctors, they kind of gave me my confidence back – just told me to relax, take it slow, and it was a good thing it happened in the fall and I’m able to play the actual season.”
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound, junior was cleared to begin running on Thursday (Jan. 24) but has been hitting since Dec. 27. Since then Garza has been shaking off the rust and trying to get back into his routine he developed prior to his injury.
"He’s what [major leaguers] look like," Mainieri said. "A good looking kid, powerful. He’s got the tools. He looks like a future major leaguer to me. He puts on a display in batting practice. That brand new video board out there is in danger when he’s taking batting practice."
If Garza is as good as he is said to be, LSU will have one of the most dangerous top-half batting lineups in the country. Duplantis is chasing the all-time hits mark in the Southeastern Conference, Smith was a freshman All-American, then Garza is followed up by Cabrera and Watson, who has 16 career home runs.
Even though Gorilla Ball is dead, that doesn’t mean fans in the outfield bleachers shouldn’t keep their gloves ready in 2019.