Mason Katz powers LSU baseball team

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU first baseman Mason Katz rounds the bases after his three-run homer against Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU first baseman Mason Katz rounds the bases after his three-run homer against Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013.

Mason Katz is being more patient, and the hits, home runs and RBIs are coming a lot faster.

Katz led the LSU baseball team with 13 home runs last season, and he has matched that total halfway through this year. He leads the nation with 49 RBIs — one fewer than he had last season — and he’s hitting .419 — 99 points higher than last season — as the No. 2 Tigers prepare to host No. 9 Kentucky in a Southeastern Conference series beginning Friday night in Alex Box Stadium.

Coach Paul Mainieri said Katz is having the kind of season that could be worthy of player of the year awards like the Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award.

“Those are video game stats,” Mainieri said. “He’s just having an unbelievable year. I think it’s in another stratosphere.”

Katz said a key to his success has been patience — not just taking more pitches but waiting longer before deciding whether a pitch is worth swinging at and understanding he can swing later and drive the ball to right or right-center field instead of swinging early and trying to pull the ball.

He has 15 strikeouts in 128 plate appearances, putting him on pace to fall well short of the 52 strikeouts he had last season.

“I think I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “I’m not chasing bad pitches, and I think that’s a huge thing for me. I’m sticking to my approach really well.”

Katz, who primarily batted third last season, has moved to fifth. Freshman Alex Bregman stepped in at No. 3 and is batting an SEC-best .440. Raph Rhymes, who hit a school-record .431 last season, is batting .327 and has reached base in every game but one in the No. 4 spot, giving Katz plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.

“He’s laid off some pitches this year that in past years he might have swung at — high fastballs and breaking balls in the dirt — because he would go up there trying to jack a ball out of the park,” Mainieri said. “Now he’s willing to take a base hit to the opposite field.

“When you’re hitting with runners on base all the time and you know that a single can put runs on the board for your team, you’re more willing to do that. When you’re hitting with no one on base and you’re thinking the only way you can score is to hit one out of the ballpark, it makes it a little more difficult.”

Junior third baseman Christian Ibarra has provided protection for Katz by hitting .330 with 20 RBI in the No. 6 hole, making opposing pitchers reluctant to pitch around Katz.

“You can’t really pick and choose who to pitch to because anybody in the lineup can hurt you,” Katz said. “And they don’t really have any place to put me because other guys are always on base.”

Katz leads the SEC in slugging percentage (.888) and on-base percentage (.519), and he’s one of four Tigers — joining Bregman, Rhymes and Ibarra — in the top 10 in runs.

“When I get on base,” Rhymes said, “I get ready to run because I know most of the time I’m scoring.”

Katz’s home runs have taken a lot of RBI opportunities away from Ibarra, who’s content to bat with the bases empty under those circumstances.

“When Mason hits a home run in front of me,” Ibarra said, “I go up there thinking I’m just going to try and get a hit and keep this inning going.”

Mainieri said he has marveled at how many of Katz’s run-producing hits have come in clutch situations. Katz generally hasn’t padded his statistics against deep-in-the-bullpen relievers but instead has gotten big hits that have helped push the Tigers to a 27-2 record. They’re within a victory Friday of matching the 1986 team’s school-record start.

“It seems every home run he has hit and every RBI he has had has come at a time when it has mattered most,” Mainieri said. “If a homer didn’t tie the game or give us the lead, it got us back in the game or extended a precariously small lead. He’s just had a phenomenal year. I don’t know if he can keep it up. I think he’s a great player and a great hitter. If he does less than he did in the first half, he’s still going to have a great year.”

Katz is on pace to hit 25-plus homers. Former Tiger Matt Clark hit an NCAA-best 28 in 2008, the only time in the past 12 years an LSU player has hit more than 23.

Rhymes said Katz’s home run pace, which has come mostly in cold weather, “really is scary.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he hit 30,” he said. “Once the weather warms up and that ball starts flying out, he’s going to really be dangerous.”

Katz, a senior from Harahan and Jesuit High School, figures to draw more attention from professional scouts than he did last year, when he wasn’t drafted. But he said he’s not concerned with the impression he’s making on scouts.

“Honestly I don’t care at all about that. I care about LSU,” he said. “That’s why I came back. It was a no-doubter. When people asked me about the draft last year, I said I don’t even really want to go. I want to stay here. That’s exactly how I feel. If I could stay here next year, I would — no doubt.

“I don’t know if I’ve opened (scouts’) eyes and, if I have, I don’t really care. I hope I’ve opened eyes for this trip we’re on — on the road to Omaha.”