Paul Mainieri will go to his grave believing that LSU would have won a national championship in 2017 had Eric Walker been healthy enough to pitch in the championship series against Florida.
By his own admission, rarely does a day go by when the coach doesn’t contemplate what could have been. And it turns out he’s brought that theory to Walker’s attention, too.
“Coach tells me all the time that we would have won the national championship, so I’m not going to sit here and counter that argument,” Walker laughs. “I wish I would have been healthy so we could have proven that right, but honestly I try not to live in the past.”
Losing Walker undoubtedly set the tone for the injury-ravaged 2018 season that followed. LSU could barely fill out its weekend rotation as guys went down during the stretch run, and Walker could’ve been a stabilizing force were it not for his Tommy John surgery.
That’s enough about the past for now. A new season approaches and LSU is as thrilled to have its Mr. Reliable back in the mix as Walker is to be fully healthy again and back with his teammates.
Need proof? Despite an infusion of premium arm talent this offseason — highly-touted hurlers who throw harder than Walker could ever dream — Mainieri has already installed Walker as LSU’s Sunday starter to begin the season.
“Eric’s value is not just measured in his velocity of the effectiveness of his changeup,” Mainieri says. “More than anything, he’s a leader. He’s a field general. He’s a consummate pitcher, and what I’ve seen out of him so far is he’s back to normal. I have a feeling it’s like riding a bicycle for him.”
The soft-spoken Texan was a revelation for LSU during that College World Series run. At times he was LSU’s most-consistent starter and displayed a knack for dominating winner-take-all rubber matches in the SEC. He finished the year 8-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 95.2 innings to earn Freshman All-America honors.
After a full year of rehabilitation, Walker returned to the mound this past fall. Command is usually the last thing pitchers get back after Tommy John surgery, but coaches and teammates concur that Walker has looked like his old self in side sessions and intra-squad scrimmages.
“You know what he did for us in ’17, being able to come into the SEC and pitch as well as he did,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn says. “This last year I know was hard on him, but he’s been diligent in his workload coming back. I’m excited to see him take this next step. He’ll be a vital part of our staff.”
There’s no such thing as minor surgery unless it is happening to someone else, but doctors have gotten Tommy John surgery down to a relatively exact science. It’s almost become a rite of passage for young pitchers in this country to undergo it at some point in their careers.
Some guys aren’t the same for a while, but others come back throwing harder than they did before going under the knife.
Walker isn’t particularly worried about it either way. He says he felt like himself almost immediately once he got back on the mound in the fall. In fact, Walker asked coaches to not relay his radar gun readings to him while working his way back.
“I didn’t want that number hanging over my head,” Walker says. “As long as I feel healthy and feel good throwing the ball, I’m not too worried about the numbers. So far I feel like myself.”
He continues: “I think the whole world gets too wrapped up in numbers. Maybe that’s too easy for me to say because I’m not a big velo(city) guy, but location wins in pitching, especially for me. I’m not worried about those numbers at all.”
A star pitcher and starting quarterback for Arlington Martin High School, Walker got used to being in the center of the action. Spending a year grinding behind the scenes admittedly took some getting used to.
Walker found an outlet for his competitive juices on the ping pong table inside the players’ lounge. Sometimes he’d come up to the press box during games and pass the time as a guest tweeter on the official LSU Baseball account.
Even the mundane ritual of putting on a game uniform for a team picture brought a beaming smile to Walker’s typically-understated face.
The reason for that is two-fold. For one, Walker says he hadn’t put on an official uniform since Opening Night of last season. Secondly, he was actually left out of last year’s team photo because he was rehabbing at the time and didn’t think he belonged in the shot.
“Honestly I didn’t even get it in,” Walker says. “I came and didn’t expect to be in it. I didn’t know how that worked. I was doing my rehab and Coach said ‘Hey, the team picture is going on.’ I was in shorts and so I just said ‘Y’all go ahead.’ So I’m excited to be in it this year.”
Staying cool in the moment has never been an issue for Walker. During his rookie season, Walker stared down some of the SEC’s most-powerful lineups without breaking a sweat. He was cool as a cucumber while defeating Arkansas to clinch the SEC Tournament crown.
Coaches are confident Walker will be that same calm, cool and collected pitcher when he takes the mound on Feb. 17 against Air Force.
Walker himself isn’t quite ready to make that promise. He’ll try his hardest to stay cool, but after more than a year away from the game he loves, he knows his adrenaline will be pumping when he jogs out to that mound for the first time.
“I hope to keep that tradition alive,” Walker says. “I hope to still have that like Coach said. I haven’t been out on that mound in a game in a while, so to give you an exact answer, I don’t know. That’s the plan. Be poised like I was my freshman year and just try to contribute to this team.”