For most of the last three seasons, LSU pitchers Alex Lange and Jared Poche have made a habit out of dueling one another to see who could turn in the best starting performance of a weekend.
The first two games against Auburn this weekend added another chapter to that, with Lange twirling a shutout in the opener and Poche nearly matching that effort for 6.2 innings in the middle game.
So when Eric Walker trotted out to the mound Saturday with a chance to wrap up an LSU sweep, you had to believe he was a little intimidated by the prospect of matching what his two older teammates had done.
Maybe so. But instead of matching them, the LSU freshman topped his veteran mound mates.
In a rhythm from the second batter of the game on, Walker carried a no-hitter 7.2 innings deep and the LSU offense continued to find success against top-notch SEC pitching in a 9-1 romp at Alex Box Stadium.
LSU (35-17, 18-9 SEC) won its eighth game in the last nine league outings behind Walker and a clicking lineup that got to Auburn ace Casey Mize early and often enough to chase him after just 4 innings – his shortest stint of the season.
Mike Papierski delivered another big offensive day with a safety squeeze bunt and two-run home run, part of an 8-for-11, 7-run, 5-RBI day by the last four batters in the LSU batting order.
With the victory, LSU swept Auburn and climbed squarely into the hunt for the regular-season league championship with one weekend left in the regular season.
After barreling through the first 7 innings, Walker finally yielded a hit when AU’s nine-hole batter, Sam Gillikin, twisted an opposite-field solo home run just over the fence in the left-field corner with two outs in the 8th inning.
That was the sum total of Auburn’s offensive damage. AU managed just two hits and scored only four runs (two earned) in the three games. Walker had been shaky in his last three starts with 15 runs allowed over 11.2 innings, but you couldn’t tell against Auburn (32-21, 14-13).
“Lange went out and did his thing and so did Poche,” Walker said. “We knew they had two of their best guys going in Games 2 and 3, so I felt that extra need. We’re at the point of the season where I felt the extra energy boost.”
That boost certainly paid off.
After walking Auburn’s Daniel Robert with one out in the 1st inning, Walker found a groove and slowly suffocated AU over the next 7.2 innings.
Conor Davis and Dylan Ingram rolled out to end the opening frame and those two outs began a stretch when Walker mowed down 18 batters in a row before he walked Davis with one out in the 7th inning.
Will Holland hammered a wicked shot that Smith snagged to start the 8th inning and Walker struck out Mike Rojas for the second out. Gillikin fell behind 0-and-1 before shanking a two-out fly ball that carried and carried until sneaking over the left-field fence just fair for a solo home run.
“He just pounded the strike zone and we made outs all day long,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said.
“He threw Strike 1 time and time again and was in the bottom of the strike zone. When we got a pitch to hit, we were just missing it. He took the sting out of our swing and it was very routine for him.”
Meanwhile, LSU’s hitters made sure nothing was routine for Mize, hitting him unlike any opponent has all season. He came in with a 1.39 ERA but exited after his worst outing of the season.
First baseman Nick Coomes got things chugging for LSU to start the 2nd inning when he dumped a leadoff double to right field on Mize’s first pitch of the inning. Smith looped a single to shallow left field and Beau Jordan rolled a grounder that just eluded AU second baseman Jay Estes for an RBI single that sent Smith scampering to third base.
Papierski, the hero Friday with a late two-run home run, laid down a perfect safety squeeze bunt for a 2-0 cushion, and following Zach Watson’s single – LSU’s fourth hit of the inning – Kramer Robertson sent a high fly ball to right field for a sacrifice fly and 3-0 advantage.
Instead, Papierski devoured a fastball and yanked a line drive into the right-field bleachers for his second two-run home run in as many days – this one giving LSU a stunning 5-0 lead on Mize.
“That’s a tough team to beat because of guys like Casey and (Keegan Thompson), so we knew we had to come out and battle at the plate,” Papierski said.
Papierski’s jolt on Friday came off of Thompson, a pitcher that LSU coach Paul Mainieri called one of the toughest competitors he has ever coached against.
Beating that duo back-to-back was a big theme in the sweep, but Walker made sure he got a share of the spotlight as well.
“We had to beat Keegan Thompson and Casey Mize, and those are two of the best pitchers in our conference and maybe the country,” Mainieri said.
“Eric is a strike-thrower and he tries to change speeds effectively. I thought he threw with an awful lot of confidence, looked in complete control, he hit his spots and we played good defense behind him.”
Meanwhile, bad got worse for Auburn in the 6th inning when LSU generated three more runs, the last two on Cole Freeman’s two-out shallow popup between second base and right field that neither Estes nor Robert could find in the early-afternoon sun, allowing it to drop for a single.
By then most of the remaining story had shifted to Walker’s no-hit bid.
The only real trouble spot came in the seventh when he walked Davis to start the inning and then Josh Anthony on four pitchers with one out to put a pair of AU runners on for the only time all day.
Walker mixed pitches well throughout his 8 innings, and as Thompson noted, rarely worked behind. He recorded nine ground-ball outs, 11 in the air, struck out three and got the out on a vicious line drive that Smith snared two batters before Gillikin’s spoiler home run.
Todd grounded out to shortstop after Gillikin’s homer and LSU relievers Nick Bush and Caleb Gilbert logged a scoreless 9th inning to finish Auburn off.
“(Walker) just pitched a masterful game and our starting pitching was so great this weekend,” Mainieri said.
Same can be said about the lower end of the Tigers’ lineup.
Watson was 6-for-11 with 2 runs and 2 RBIs, Papierski was 2-for-5 with 3 walks, 3 runs, 2 homers and 5 RBIs and Jordan chipped in with 3 hits, 3 runs and 3 RBIs.
“If you want to have a good offensive team, you better have a good bottom third of the order, because if you’re always putting all the pressure just on certain portions of the lineup and they’re the only guys who can get a rally going, you’re going to have a tough time,” Mainieri said.
With a late-season head of steam, LSU will host Northwestern State at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the last regular-season home game of the year before heading to Mississippi State to close things out. The Bulldogs lost at Georgia on Saturday, 4-1, meaning the Tigers will go into the last series in no worse than a tie for the West Division lead.