As good as Josh Smith is, the LSU freshman infielder figures to have a few hiccups as he navigates his way through his first college season.
Same applies for Eric Walker, the Tigers’ starting pitcher on Sunday against Air Force in the final game of a weekend that dripped with nostalgia and honor.
In a weekend full of positive signs for No. 3-ranked LSU, those two rookies produced a few more in a 10-3 triumph.
The Tigers (3-0) erupted for six runs in the 4th inning to erase their first deficit of the season, with Smith and Greg Deichmann striking the big blows.
Meanwhile, Walker breezed through 3 perfect innings, weathered a storm that Smith helped create with an errant throw to minimize the damage and then logged a shutdown inning after he was handed the lead.
The six runs would’ve been plenty because four relievers after Walker kept the Falcons in check. But the LSU offense kept cranking with Cole Freeman, Jake Slaughter and Kramer Robertson each pushing home runs – the two veterans with two-out hits.
But it was the two freshmen who stole most of the spotlight – especially during the 4th and 5th innings.
Walker (1-0) surrendered his first hit when Nic Ready whistled a line drive to center field with one out in the 4th. Air Force three-hole hitter Tyler Jones worked his on with a full-count walk for two runners on with one out.
Bradley Haslam hammered a hard ground ball at Smith, who bobbled but quickly recovered, picked the ball up and threw wide of Freeman at second base on a play that had two outs written all over it.
Instead, Ready raced around for the first run LSU had allowed all weekend and Jones dashed home moments later on Tyler Zabojnik’s base hit. Walker exhaled and coaxed another tailor-made double-play grounder off the bat of Ashton Easley, and this time Robertson and Freeman turned it with no issue.
"Eric Walker was dominant for the first 3 innings,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He went 10-up, 10-down with five strikeouts. Then they got to him a little bit. He had a 3-2 changeup (to Jones) that he kind of babied out there and threw it for ball four. When we’re playing in the SEC against the hitters we’re going up against, he’s going to have to be able to execute those kinds of pitches. He’s got to be a little better, but I thought he was pretty good for his first start out there.”
Meanwhile, Smith got better and quickly after his first gaffe.
The Tigers quickly forged a 2-2 tie when Robertson blooped a leadoff single to center and Deichmann devoured a 1-and-0 offering from Jacob Devreis, rifling it into the right-field bleachers at a 114 mph clip.
It was Deichmann’s second homer in three games and came nine days after his was hit in the face by a pitch and suffered facial fractures. In the first three games, Deichmann was 4-for-8 with the two bombs, a double and 5 RBIs.
“It’s kind of like a fairy-tale ending to the opening weekend,” Deichmann said. “First setback, new season after surgery, I don’t know if I’m going to play or not opening night, home run. I was saying (Saturday) night it was kind of a story-book thing, and to come out here (Sunday) and hit another one was pretty awesome.”
Hitting the first of a career can be pretty awesome as well, especially on the heels of a glaring mistake.
Jake Slaughter followed Deichmann’s laser with a single before Devreis struck out Bryce Adams and retired Beau Jordan on a roller to third base that advanced Slaughter to third.
Mike Papierski smoked a hot shot to the left side that Zabojnik smothered and kept on the infield. Slaughter wandered around the bag at third and was nearly tagged out but somehow contorted his body just right to avoid Ready’s tag.
Devreis moved in front of Smith 1-and-2 before the Tigers’ rookie tagged the next pitch to right-center field and out of the ball park for a three-run blast and the lead.
“He showed what he’s made of, the moxie that he has,” Mainieri said. “He misses the double play ball that would’ve ended the inning, they scored two runs, then he comes up in the bottom of the inning and hits a three-run homer and makes several good plays after that. That’s what winners do, and you can tell Josh Smith has that about him.”
LSU’s lead grew to 6-2 when Freeman’s speed came in handy as he scored from second base on a two-out wild pitch.
That was plenty of cushion for Walker. He went back to the mound after the Tigers’ big inning, got two quick outs and waited out a long delay after home-play umpire Ray Miller took a foul ball off the top of his head and had to leave the game.
Shortly after Ray Gregson stepped in behind the dish, Walker snapped off a called third strike for his sixth K and the end of a dazzling debut.
“You could see Eric’s poise and composure out there on the mound,” Mainieri said, “He’s going to throw an awful lot of strikes.”
Two freshmen followed Walker to the mound: Zack Hess gave up a two-out run in the 6th when Jones whacked a fly ball off the left-field foul pole and Todd Peterson worked around a two-out walk. Veterans Doug Norman and Hunter Newman were each flawless in an inning apiece.
Robertson removed any drama when he followed Freeman’s leadoff walk and a Falcons’ error in the 8th inning with a ringing double to left-center field for two runs – his second straight multi-hit and multi-RBI game. Freeman produced two hits in each game and scored four times.
“It’s a very comforting feeling as the head coach of this program to look out there and see those two kids at short and second defensively,” Mainieri said of his two seniors.
The Tigers head into a busy week on Tuesday when they head down I-10 to face New Orleans at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. The Privateers also got off to a 3-0 start with a pair of shutouts.