Coastal Carolina shortstop Michael Paez admits that the long season has taken a toll on his body and in turn his defense. He admits he’s worn down a bit and his arm has given him trouble as the games have piled up.
But not last weekend.
Last weekend, with the Chanticleers competing for a Big South championship despite having several key players out with injury, Paez was as impressive in the field as he’s been all season. Not to mention leading the tournament with eight runs scored over four games.
“I just definitely buckled down and just knew I had to be [at my best],” Paez said this week. “I definitely thought about that and just did my thing.”
He admitted too that he feeds off the bigger stages the season brings from time to time, which is encouraging for the Chants as there may be none bigger all season than what they’ll see this weekend in College Station, Texas, in NCAA Regionals play at Texas A&M.
The Chants’ pitching staff is still banged up, their starting catcher and biggest power hitter is questionable with a back injury and they are sharing a four-team double-elimination regional with two of the country’s top teams in opening opponent No. 25 California and host No. 8 Texas A&M.
Now as much as ever, Coastal Carolina is going to need the slick fielding sophomore from Miami, Fla., to make those diving stops up the middle that elicit oohs from the fans, those smooth short-hop picks that turn hits into outs and that all-around offensive game he’s developed in his second season.
He knows this as well as anyone, and from the time he arrived at Coastal Carolina after being passed over by the premier in-state Florida programs, Paez has always appreciated these opportunities to prove himself, to open more eyes.
“Those are big teams there. They’re probably going to see me and be like, ‘Oh, he’s 5-9, 5-8.’ But I feel like I play bigger than I am,” he said. “I feel like my height really doesn’t matter. But it’s fun being out there on bigger stages.”
Paez’s recruiting story is of a familiar ilk in the college baseball world. He had some interest from Florida Atlantic and Central Florida while the national powers from the state like Miami, Florida and Florida State looked elsewhere.
And as often happens in the recruiting game, Coastal Carolina just happened to have an assistant coach in the right place at the right time.
Chants pitching coach Drew Thomas was in Florida to scout another player when he noticed Paez doing his thing in the field and at the plate.
“He actually went to see someone else and saw him at a tournament down in Florida and just [noticed] the way he plays, the way he flies around the infield,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “We got him to come to one of our camps and he came up here and played really well. You could just see – you weren’t sure whether short or second would be his eventual spot, but you knew he was going to be a very good middle infield guy. He decided to come here and we’ve been very blessed ever since.”
Especially this season.
After playing strong defense last year while having moments here or there at the plate while hitting just .245 overall, Paez has been a breakout star as a sophomore while settling into the No. 2 spot in the lineup and batting .330 (second on the team) with seven home runs, a team-best 17 doubles, 41 RBI, 57 runs and a team-leading 19 stolen bases in 22 attempts.
He says Coastal Carolina is actually where he wanted to end up all along, that he had seen a random Chants football game on TV at one point, liked the colors and uniforms and proceeded to research the baseball program and its tradition of success.
But that didn’t alleviate the feeling of being slighted after his home-state teams passed over him.
“It definitely gives me a chip on my shoulder knowing that they looked past me. They would show up at a game here or there and just look at another kid that was bigger than me or something or a bigger name at the time,” Paez said. “But it definitely [left] a chip on my shoulder, especially playing against Florida State [earlier this month] and beating them felt good because they always looked past me because I’m guessing my height. …
“I’m glad Coastal gave me a chance to show off what I really could showcase.”
Gilmore, meanwhile, thinks there’s still another level for Paez to reach next season.
“The first 30 games he played as good at shortstop as anybody’s played here since I’ve been here, and we’ve had some really good ones,” Gilmore said. “The last 30 hasn’t been quite so good. He’s banged up, beat up because I haven’t been able to take him out of many games. I hope we can put another 15 pounds of muscle on him next fall and if he can play the way he played for 30 games for a whole season he’ll end up being a good draft pick guy. He played a high, high level of shortstop early in the year and in the conference tournament you saw it again.
“You’re sitting there going, ‘Oh geez, don’t do that … Great play Mike!’”
Those kind of reactions have become commonplace since Paez got on campus as a freshman. While his bat took some time to develop, the glove has been turning heads from the start.
“[In the fall of 2013], we were working together at short and second and we were taking fungos and he’s got a really active arm, really strong arm and he’d make some plays that you just kind of look at yourself in practice like, ‘Did he really just do that?’” said junior teammate Connor Owings.
Again, the Chants will hope for a few more of those moments this weekend at Texas A&M as they return to the NCAA Regionals after a one-year absence, hoping this bounce-back season has more life still left in it.
Paez has spoken humbly about his breakout season all year and in talking about his ever growing highlight reel, he says he simply thinks after each one of those plays that it’s one less out the pitcher has to worry about, a few less pitches the guy on the mound has to expend.
But he also admits he doesn’t mind earning a few more believers in the process, and he’ll have no better opportunity than this weekend on the national stage before what is traditionally a loud and spirited environment at Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park.
“It’s always fun, especially when you’re playing on [TV] or something, when you do make a play that’s noticeable more to everybody watching,” he said. “I know those people are watching, the ones that thought I was too short, too small. They know it was a mistake.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.