When LSU third baseman Zack Mathis walked into the locker room for the first time to meet his teammates, sophomore infielder Cade Beloso thought he was a manager. At 5-foot-8, 188-pounds, the junior college transfer from San Joaquin Delta College could look unassuming at first glance.
"I didn't know who this kid was when he first walked in," Beloso said. "We just talked to him and figured out what he was doing. Being a Cali boy, he gave me a different vibe at first but he's turned into one of my best friends on the team and I look forward to talking to him every day about baseball."
Mathis is described by coach Paul Mainieri and teammates alike as someone who loves the game and always has a smile on his face.
"He's a great player and definitely someone that everybody likes, a guy that can be counted for us during the season," Beloso said. "He can hit really well, field really well and he works really hard. I'm excited to see what he brings to our team this year."
Since his arrival on campus, Mathis has taken well to his new surroundings and instantly become one of the best all-around players on the team. But his journey to Baton Rouge was almost one that didn't happen.
LSU was in scramble mode to find another infielder last summer after the Tigers had lost recruit Christian Cairo out of high school to the pros. Cairo was on LSU's campus signing his papers for summer school, fully prepared to become an LSU student athlete, when the Cleveland Indians came calling and offered him a deal he couldn't refuse.
The move blindsided Mainieri and recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain, forcing the two to pivot and make other arrangements. Cain and Mainieri exhausted most of their contacts and were eventually turned on to Mathis by Prospect League coach Eric Coleman, who is well connected in the California junior college scene.
Mathis had a batting average of .348 with 14 homeruns and 134 RBI in two seasons with San Joaquin Delta College and was on a recruiting trip to South Carolina and two more scheduled with Florida State and Texas Tech afterwards.
"We figured there must be something to this with all the attention he was grabbing," Mainieri said. "We called him up and he came in for a visit and then cancelled his Florida State and Texas Tech visits and signed with us. Sometimes the best things happen in the wake of disappointing things. Zack might be the best all-around player that we're going to run out there."
Mathis said it was a no brainer to go on a visit to LSU and called himself lucky to be in a place with the rich history that this program has at readying collegiate players for the next level.
"Pretty much it's the best of the best," Mathis said. "You want to go to the best place and LSU growing up was the best college baseball program. So how could I say no to that opportunity? With all of the facilities and resources they have here, it's way better than where I was at."
While at San Joaquin Delta junior college, Mathis would set the field up everyday for practice because he liked to be one of the first ones to hit. With an entire equipment staff that sets the field up for him now, Mathis said it's been a welcomed adjustment for him so now he can just focus on his routine.
"You come here and everyone's taking care of you, it's pretty cool to be a part of that," Mathis said.
On the field, from the start of fall camp, Mathis has been one of if not the best all-around player on the roster according to Mainieri. He'll start the season as LSU's three hole hitter and likely play third base, though Mainieri said he could play some shortstop as well.
At the end of the day what Mathis really loves to do above all else, is hit. In the spring alone Mathis has already clobbered two homeruns in the intrasquad scrimmages. Mathis hit in the three hole spot both seasons in junior college so there won't be too much of an adjustment for him in that respect.
"I'm used to knowing what I should do in that spot in the lineup in grabbing runs and being consistent," Mathis said. "I was kind of hoping that was gonna happen."
With LSU's season opener now less than a week away, Mathis has been told what the experience of playing in Alex Box is like but is still excited to trot out to the 12,000 or so fans that will show up to watch Opening Day.
"I'm sure that he's going to be overly amped and I'm trying to keep him calmed down because he's typically a very emotional kid," Mainieri said. "When it comes to baseball, he just loves the game and gives it everything he's got. He's been such a pleasure to have out here. Nobody works harder than him."