On the night LSU ended a four-year hiatus from Omaha, the Tigers finally have the JaCoby Jones they’ve tried to coax, cajole and drag on to the turf at Alex Box Stadium for the better part of three seasons.
The one who showed patience in the second inning and knocked a one-run single back up the middle to stake LSU to an early lead Saturday, made a diving stop to save a run in the bottom of the inning and then clubbed a solo homer to the Left Field Landing in the seventh.
The former face of ambivalence, embodied by a far-away stare, was gone during an 11-1 rout of Oklahoma in the Baton Rouge Super Regional, when he went 5-for-7 with four runs and two RBIs as LSU earned a trip to the College World Series. The facade of Jones’ former persona is gone, too.
“There’s no doubt,” LSU hitting coach Javi Sanchez said. “JaCoby possesses the tools to do that, but the resiliency he showed through the ups and downs this year and strapping the team on his back this weekend meant to a lot to our offense.”
Over three seasons, conversations about Jones, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound physical specimen, centered around potential and whether he could hone his focus enough to cash in on tools that left major league scouts both fawning and leery.
There’s the high leg kick and a sometimes long swing. There’s the ambivalence sometimes during routine plays, such as loafing out a routine grounder against Alabama that led Mainieri to sit him for the final game of that series.
But that’s what has made Jones an enigma: How can a man near the bottom of the order be so highly thought of that the Pittsburgh Pirates would snag him with the No. 87 pick in this year’s draft?
“He might not have said it, but I’m going to say it: I think him being drafted took some pressure off of him,” Mainieri said.
He was constantly under scrutiny the whole year. He knew there were 20 scouts every day watching him play.”
At the end of March, Jones arrived back from a road trip to Missouri with a .188 batting average. He had more strikeouts (20) than hits (18) and hadn’t hit a home run since the opening series against Maryland. And the chorus of doubt amplified, too.
“It’s difficult because these kids are vulnerable,” Sanchez said. “This is a game of failure, and it’s coping with them to bounce back the next day. JaCoby has really matured, and that’s the product you saw tonight.”
Did faith waver in him? Hardly.
“He was hitting the loudest .192 in the nation,” first baseman Mason Katz said. “He would hit balls harder than any of us could hit it, and he got out. It got to the point where he would come in the dugout and I told him, ‘They’re going to start falling. Just keep hitting the ball hard.’ ”
Meanwhile, Sanchez and undergraduate assistant coach Blake Dean began to tinker. The tweaking began in Dean’s office, where he noticed on film Jones’ altered leg kick was helping get his front foot down quicker. He texted Jones and Sanchez: Should we go with it?
“What’s it going to hurt? You’re hitting .190,” Dean told him.
Since that point, Jones has slowly built toward this breakout. In the past two months, he batted .385 (35-for-91) with three homers and 19 RBIs while committing just two errors in 30 games.
“My swing is the same, but I just feel really comfortable in the box,” Jones said. “I was just trying to do whatever I can to get on base for the team, use my legs and find some holes. I was just doing whatever I can to hit the ball hard.”
On Saturday, his second-inning single brought in Raph Rhymes. Then he delivered a booming swing during another 0-2 count, smashing a solo home run in the eighth. Peeling off his batting helmet after scoring, he was mobbed by a purple horde of teammates.
Who could blame them? They found the man they had sought all along. And right in time, too.
“This kid’s a monster,” Katz said.