Moments get big in postseason baseball. Sometimes too big for freshmen stepping on such a big stage for the first time.
That may apply to typical freshmen. Eric Walker is the latest LSU rookie to remove any thought that he is anywhere close to typical, though.
Walker and the Tigers took the diamond at Alex Box Stadium Sunday night against a familiar old foe and with familiar stakes on the line.
With a trip to the Super Regional round on the line for LSU, Walker was more grizzled veteran than wide-eyed freshman, tossing 8-plus dazzling shutout innings to spark the Tigers to a 5-0 victory.
Three wins in three days, all following different storylines and with different players stepping in as leading men – including several freshmen – as LSU (46-17) remained red-hot, stretched its winning streak to 14 games and grabbed a spot in the Super Regional round, which will start later this week at home against either Southern Miss or Mississippi State.
Third baseman Josh Smith provided a pair of hits and was one of five Tigers to drive in a run, three on productive outs, as LSU’s offense was methodically efficient, if not explosive, to seal the deal.
As if Walker and Smith didn’t represent the freshman class well enough, Jake Slaughter added a clutch two-out RBI single and reliever Zack Hess took over to close things out and recorded three strikeouts.
No question, though, that Walker was the major story line on a night that he turned ho-hum by tying the Owls (33-31) in knots.
Rice produced seven hits, never more than one in the same inning until the 9th, and none with a runner in scoring position.
Painting the corners effectively, Walker kept Rice batters guessing whenever he got ahead in the count, which was much more often than not as he never went to a three-ball count and only got to a two-ball count three times. He unleashed 77 strikes in 98 pitches and pegged 25 first-pitch strikes to 31 batters faced.
“Obviously the story of the game was (Walker),” Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri said. “We’re not surprised anymore. He’s done it so many times.”
While Mainieri and Walker’s teammates are getting used to Walker’s uncanny excellence, it was a new experience for an old coach who has seen an awful lot of top-notch pitching during his career.
“He’s very advanced in terms of demeanor and knowing how to pitch,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “Rarely do you see someone like that. He really knows what he’s doing. He has a purpose with every pitch, and that’s very obvious. Most of the time he carries out that purpose. He's a fine pitcher.”
Much of Walker’s purpose Sunday seemed to revolve around frustrating Rice and he succeeded.
Twice, the Owls got leadoff doubles – Dominic DiCaprio in the 2nd inning and Dayne Wunderlich in the 6th – and both times Walker recorded three outs in a row. The latter one was particularly impressive because with a chance to dent the scoreboard, the first three batters in the Owls’ lineup went down, two on strikeouts.
“I try to go out and do my best in most pressure situations, and that's what I like to do.”
Much like their freshman pitcher, the LSU lineup came out with a purpose against Owls’ freshman Addison Moss, who was making his first start of the season.
Moss got the Tigers (46-17) in order in the first, but Rice’s defense started to wobble in the 2nd inning when third baseman Dane Myers couldn’t handle a hot shot off Greg Deichmann’s bat for a leadoff error.
Deichmann broke for second base on a steal and beat DiCaprio’s throw, which skipped into center field for an error and another base. Moss got red-hot Zach Watson on a chopper to Myers for the first out, but Smith laced a first-pitch double inside the first-base bag to score Deichmann.
After Beau Jordan dumped a single to left field to put runners on the corners, Michael Papierski pushed a perfect safety squeeze bunt to the right of the mound to nudge the lead to 2-0. Jordan sprinted home from second when Slaughter laced a two-out RBI single to right field from the nine-hole.
“We had some real clutch hits,” Mainieri said. “We had some big hits early.”
The Tigers pushed home single runs the next two frames, converting Kramer Robertson’s leadoff single in the 3rd into a run on Antoine Duplantis’ sacrifice fly and turning Smith’s leadoff walk into another when Kramer Robertson scorched a bases-loaded grounder to Myers that produced a run on a fielder’s choice.
LSU never expanded on the 5-0 lead because Rice reliever Jackson Parthasarthy took over in the fourth inning and was magnificent, allowing just one hit in 5.2 innings with 13 retired in a row until the ninth inning.
But LSU’s early runs were plenty.
Mixing in a bevy of soft-contact fly balls, Walker struck out 8, four with a runner on base, three with a man in scoring position.
The Tigers’ iron-clad defense certainly played a role. Deichmann skidded on the grass for a nice running catch to keep a leadoff hitter off base in the 4th inning. Charlie Warren started the 8th by punching a ball deep into the hole at shortstop that Robertson gobbled up, twirled and fired to first base, where Slaughter made a nice scoop for a nifty 6-3 putout.
“Great defense is the key,” Walker said nonchalantly. “I’m a contact pitcher and great defense behind me really helps.
“You know, float around the zone and make them put it in play, with this defense that we've got, it makes it a lot easier.”
The Owls managed to create some 9th-inning drama when Myers and DiCaprio drilled back-to-back singles to bring a close to Walker’s night. Mainieri summoned Hess and he fanned Tristan Gray – who homered twice Saturday night against Texas Southern – for the first out before walking Andrew Dunlap to load the bases.
Unfazed, Hess struck out Darryl Sheppard and Warren – the Owls’ eighth and ninth empty at-bats with a runner in scoring position – to slam the door and seal LSU’s 14th consecutive win.
Most importantly, the three wins in three days pushes the Tigers one step closer to the place they have focused on reaching all season long.
“I’ve been preparing for this weekend since Coastal Carolina walked off with the win (last June 10),” Robertson said.
“I've been preparing for this. I've thought about it every single day.
“We’re right where we set our goals for. We’re two wins from Omaha. We don’t talk about it all year, but now we’re right there. It gives you butterflies just thinking about it.”