By Trey Mongrue
Danny Zardon stepped in the batter’s box on Thursday night knowing exactly which pitch to look for.
The scouting report on Texas A&M’s Andrew Vinson said that the Aggie reliever likes to go to his slider against right-handed hitters, and it was something that a couple of LSU hitters saw an inning before. After getting ahead in the count, 2-1, Zardon knew Vinson’s slider was coming.
“I wouldn’t say that it has been tough because we as a team have been on a roll, so all I can do is be happy for the team and my teammates.”
– LSU sophomore Danny Zardon
– LSU sophomore Danny Zardon
The LSU sophomore uncorked and sent an inch-perfect ground ball just inside the third base line. Initially freezing at second base to see if it would be fielded or fouled, Jared Foster gleefully sprinted the remaining 180 feet to home.
Zardon—fist pumping while running the bases—was mobbed by his teammates and, minutes later, was rewarded with the customary shaving cream pie in the face while doing a postgame interview on national television.
“As soon as I hit it, I was just hoping that it was fair,” recalled Zardon, who is now hitting .294 with 2 home runs and 17 runs batted in this season.
“Thank God it was because it was really close to being foul.”
It was Zardon’s only hit of his meager three at-bats off the bench for the weekend. But make no mistake about it, his walk-off double in the bottom of the ninth to secure top-ranked LSU’s 4-3 win over the Aggies in the first game set the Tiger’s tone for the rest of the series—one that they came won two games to one.
“You have to give all the credit to Danny,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “I told him that he was going to get nothing but sliders, so put a good swing on one and send us home happy and he did.”
In part because of Zardon’s Thursday heroics, LSU seemingly has a postseason national seed all but locked up even still with three weeks of the regular season and the Southeastern Conference Tournament still on tap before the final field of 64 teams is constructed.
But for Zardon, the battle still wages on.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Pembroke Pines, Fla. native was the Tigers’ heir apparent at third base and expected power hitter. All of that has changed in recent weeks, but because of the team’s success as of late, the roller coaster ride that is Zardon’s sophomore season has merely been a finely printed footnote.
“I wouldn’t say that it has been tough because we as a team have been on a roll, so all I can do is be happy for the team and my teammates,” he explained. “I try not to press too much because every moment is as big as it is and I don’t want to make one moment seem bigger than the other and put that unneeded pressure on myself.”
In hindsight, it seemed likely that whichever poor soul was named LSU’s starting third baseman would face an Everest-like uphill climb.
Trying to shed light on the shadow that the smooth-glove and rocket arm of Christian Ibarra—LSU’s starting third baseman from 2013-14—Zardon got the first crack on the heels of a successful Fall season.
He showed flashes of a good defensive game at times, but four errors in nine starts forced Mainieri to make a change, moving Conner Hale from first base to third, Chris Chinea from designated hitter to first and Zardon to the bench.
Things really came to head in an April 8 game against Northwestern State.
In what could’ve been perceived as a ‘last chance’ type situation, Mainieri inserted Zardon at third in the early part of the game. By the seventh inning, the Demons scored two runs, aided by a couple of misplays by Zardon.
When the LSU coach came onto the field for a pitching change, Zardon—along with the rest of the infield—started walking towards the mound for a meeting. A visibly upset Mainieri however waved the sophomore away.
Two weekends later, Zardon, once a starter, was not even a part of the travel roster for LSU’s series at Georgia.
“Going from a starter to guy that used here and there,” he described of his transition. “I definitely had a chip on my shoulder.”
The story could’ve easily ended there for Zardon. But, he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
The day after the Northwestern State game, he was on the field at practice the next day before everyone else, fielding ground balls. After spending the weekend watching his teammates sweep Georgia on TV, Zardon followed up with one of his best batting practice weeks of the season.
Naturally, none of that went unnoticed by Mainieri.
“Every players goes through ups and downs in their careers,” said the LSU coach. “How you handle that really ends up defining who you are as a person because nothing in life is smooth and easy.
“Danny has had a tough year but when we needed him in the biggest game of the year, he came through for us. Those kind of experiences are the great things about intercollegiate athletics that a young man will take and help him be a better person.”
With the homestretch of the season upon Mainieri, chances are that, barring injury, there will be no more shake ups in the LSU lineup, meaning Zardon will serve as a utility fielder and bench bat for the remainder of the season.
Even so, something as simple as a base hit has reinvigorated his once dormant confidence. One thing is for sure, Mainieri, Texas A&M and the rest of the college baseball world now know that there won’t be a moment too big for Zardon to come in to.
“It’s just an awesome feeling,” said Zardon. “To get a big hit for us in a spot like that, it’s another thing that we as a team accomplished and we still have so much more to do.”