IN FOCUS: Zach Watson
Sometimes, one game is all it takes.
For Zach Watson, one game jumpstarted his college baseball career, changed the trajectory of an entire season and endeared him to the most passionate fan base in the country.
Watson began his baseball journey at an early age, playing tee ball and quickly advancing through the subsequent levels of the youth baseball circuit, often playing above his age group. Watson’s father played baseball and his mother played softball, and it was apparent from early on that their son had a rare talent for the sport.
In high school, Watson served mainly as the starting shortstop for the varsity team at West Ouachita High in West Monroe, La., but also played a couple games in the outfield his freshman season and periodically served as the team’s closer.
By the end of his freshman season at West Ouachita, the phone calls had already started flowing in from universities trying to persuade him to come visit their campuses. The only phone call Watson wanted to receive, however, came from LSU baseball head coach Paul Mainieri.
Watson and his family came down to Baton Rouge for a tour of Alex Box Stadium, and Mainieri quickly received a verbal commitment from the kid who would go on to become Louisiana’s No. 1-ranked prospect dubbed “the fastest player in the state.”
“I didn’t even think about going to any other schools,” Watson said. “You grow up in Louisiana, and it’s a dream come true to play for LSU. It’s what you live for as a baseball player.”
Coming off a successful freshman campaign, sophomore Antoine Duplantis made the shift from right field to center field to begin the 2017 season, temporarily blocking a clear path to playing time for the freshman Watson.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get to play right away, but Coach Mainieri kept telling me to keep practicing and keep going because he knew the type of baseball player that I was,” Watson said. “I had to stay locked in and just wait for the opportunity that he gave me.”
On March 11, 2017, that opportunity came in the form of a text message the morning of Game 2 in the Wichita State series.
When Coach Mainieri informed Watson he would be in the lineup in center field for his first start, the freshman immediately called his parents, who gave him the same piece of advice he would later give himself at the start of the game later that night.
“Whenever the game started, I was nervous, but I was just happy to be in the lineup,” Watson said. “I remember telling myself that I had to do something in order to stay in the lineup. I told myself ‘If you’re going to be a great baseball player here at LSU, you have to step up and compete and play the best baseball you can.’”
Batting sixth, Watson’s first plate appearance as a starter came in the bottom of the second inning, when he lined a single to left field. His next at-bat came in the third inning and Watson singled again, this time driving in a run.
With LSU leading Wichita State 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, Watson stepped up to the plate for a third time and unleashed a three-run shot to right field in front of over 10,000 raucous fans at The Box.
By the end of the night, Watson had gone 3-for-4 at the plate with a home run, four RBI and a walk. It was a dream scenario for the freshman to show what he was capable of in his first career start.
After his performance on March 11, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the center field job was Watson’s to have for the remainder of the season, and his significant contributions on the field both offensively and defensively showed an immediate impact on the rest of the team.
“Coach Mainieri told me he felt like I would be a spark on the team whenever he put me in,” Watson said. “Having two of the fastest guys in me and Antoine (Duplantis) out in the outfield last year covering the ground helped us out a lot. I feel like I gave the team another batter that they could count on as well.”
Watson’s .317 batting average led the team last season, and the freshman ended the year with the second-highest slugging percentage and third-most home runs on the team.
As spectacular as his play was during the regular season, Watson turned it up to a new level in the postseason, batting .333 with a couple of back-to-back two-home run games against Texas Southern and Southeastern Louisiana in the Baton Rouge Regional.
Watson was named to the 2017 College World Series All-Tournament team and picked up a couple of Freshman All-America and Freshman All-SEC honors along the way. Watson’s debut season in the Purple and Gold could not have gone any better, and he was able to learn a lot from the leaders on that team in order to become a better leader himself.
“I’m not a very talkative person, so I try to lead by example,” Watson said. “Everybody knows they can come up to me during a time of struggle. I’ll go up to them if I need to, but I won’t say it in front of the whole group. I try to do it more one-on-one; if I see something, I’m going to help them as much as I can. But I’m not the big spokesperson that’s going to holler at everybody.”
A fairly young 2018 Tigers squad has leaned heavily thus far on Watson, who is batting.337 through the first 34 games of the year with five home runs and 10 multi-hit outings.
Watson’s success story is one of patience, hard work and making the most of a moment when given the opportunity.
Watson took the opportunity and ran with it, and he hasn’t stopped running since.