CWS time finally arrives for Mason Katz

The last time the LSU baseball team made the College World Series, Mason Katz was in the outfield bleachers wearing a replica jersey and cheering on the team he knew he would join a year later.

Katz and fellow LSU recruit Jordan Rittiner made the trip to Omaha, Neb., with their fathers in 2009 and bought general admission tickets.

They were in Rosenblatt Stadium as the Tigers won the CWS championship series against Texas to clinch their sixth national title.

“It was a great experience to watch and to see LSU win it,” Katz said. “Because I knew I would be a part of that one day.”

But the versatile young prospect from Harahan couldn’t have known he’d have to wait so long.

Now a senior infielder on LSU’s first Omaha team in four years, Katz hopes to cap his college career with the kind of memories he once watched future teammates enjoy.

LSU, the No. 4 national seed, opens CWS action against UCLA at 7 p.m. Sunday in TD Ameritrade Park, which replaced Rosenblatt as the mecca of college baseball in 2011.

“I guess better late than never, right?” Katz said.

The year Katz joined the Tigers, a list of returning stars including Anthony Ranaudo, Mikie Mahtook and Micah Gibbs led LSU to a 32-6 start, but LSU struggled down the stretch and went 1-2 in regionals. The following season, LSU missed the NCAA tournament entirely despite winning 12 of its final 15 games in the regular season.

Katz helped power a 2012 team that won the right to host regionals and super regionals as the No. 7 national seed, only to suffer a 7-2 loss to Stony Brook with a berth in the CWS on the line.

Had the Tigers missed out on a trip to Omaha once again this year, Katz would have been part of the first senior class since the early 1980s to leave LSU without a CWS trip.

“It was a terrible feeling just to think of it as a possibility,” Katz said. “But we never thought for once we weren’t going.”

The chance to experience firsthand what he witnessed as a fan in 2009 is one of the reasons Katz made it known that he wasn’t leaving LSU after his junior season for mid- to late-round draft money.

So once he fell past the early rounds, no one wasted a pick.

“They couldn’t have afforded to pay him what he would have wanted to not have a chance to play for a national championship,” said Billy Katz, Mason’s father. “He was bound and determined that was a goal he wanted to achieve in his life.”

The stance Mason Katz took last year was validated in the space of 48 hours this past weekend.

Saturday night at Alex Box Stadium, the former Jesuit High School standout took a victory lap with his teammates after LSU beat Oklahoma to clinch a CWS berth.

A day earlier, he had been selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth round of the MLB draft.

It’s one thing to have reaped the benefits of a 48-win regular season and a trip to college baseball’s promised land. In returning for his senior year, the curly haired slugger had also improved his draft stock.

The latter accomplishment may have included a twist of fate.

Yes, Katz (.373 average, 15 homers, 68 RBIs) continued in 2013 to show the kind of pop that belies his 5-foot-10, 188-pound frame. Yes, he led the Southeastern Conference in RBIs and tied for the league-high in homers.

But most of that production came as LSU’s starting first baseman.

When a hand injury sidelined JaCoby Jones for a stretch of eight games late in the season, Katz slid to second base and fielded the position like a natural. That may have been just what scouts needed to see from a prospect who lacks the physical attributes of a big-league first baseman.

“Maybe JaCoby’s injury and putting Katz at second may have helped his draft status,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s funny how negatives can be turned into positives.”

The cameo at second base showed the versatility of a player who has started games at five positions, including all three outfield positions, during his LSU career.

That could serve Katz well as he pursues a big-league career.

“A manager of a big-league team is no different than the manager of the LSU team,” Mainieri said. “The more versatility his players give him — especially the bench players — the better chances he has to win on a given day.”

Katz will turn his focus to pro baseball soon enough. He first has another dream to chase.

He remembers the excitement he felt as a recruit in the stands the last time the Tigers reached the CWS. He remembers the way that journey ended.

Now, as an LSU senior, he hopes history will repeat itself.

“Our goal at the beginning of the season was not just to get the seniors to Omaha,” Katz said. “We want to win the whole thing. If we go and lose, we’re going to be almost as disappointed as if we didn’t go at all.”