By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Eric Walker loves pitching for championships.
The freshman right hander shut out Rice for eight-plus masterful innings as LSU completed a clean sweep through the Baton Rouge Regional with a matter-of-fact 5-0 triumph over the Owls at Alex Box Stadium on Sunday night.
“The only way I can describe it is pitching for a championship really fired me up,” Walker said. “I love that situation. I feel like I tend to thrive under pressure. I think that’s something that I like to think about myself. It’s not always true, but I like to think it.
Now two wins from Omaha, LSU will host a Baton Rouge Super Regional at the Box next weekend. The Tigers will have to wait until Monday for a champion to emerge from the adjoining Hattiesburg Regional.
“Now we’re right where we set our goals for,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “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.”
As far as championships, that’s now four down with two to go for Paul Mainieri’s club. The Tigers just won their seventh NCAA Regional in his 11 years at the helm and No. 23 in the program’s illustrious history.
Working like a dead ringer for Greg Maddux, his childhood idol, Walker cruised through the Rice lineup much like he did against Arkansas in securing the SEC Tournament crown a week prior. He scattered seven hits and matched a career high with eight strikeouts.
“We’re not surprised anymore,” Mainieri said. “He’s done it so many times for us. That’s the third time in three weeks that he’s pitched us to a championship. He basically put the team on his back and was the leader.”
It took him just 98 pitches to do so, and 77 were strikes. Walker threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 35 batters he faced and didn’t have a single three-ball count all night. Of his first 30 pitches, 26 were strikes.
Those statistics don’t even do justice to the kind of pinpoint control Walker painted with from the first inning on. Living proof that a pitcher can cut a lineup to ribbons at 88 mph if they can locate each and every pitch with purpose.
“It’s not about stuff all the time,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said, smiling ear to ear. “That’s pitching. We get so enamored with radar guns, but listen, you can’t throw it hard enough for some guys. You’ve got to execute, you’ve got to get ahead and do all those things that pitching is. I’m happy for him.”
Walker came back out to go for the complete-game shutout, but Mainieri pulled him after Rice began the frame with successive sharp singles. For the second time in as many starts, he exited to a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 10,000 people.
Zack Hess came on and struck out Tristan Gray on three pitches. He issued a walk to load the bases, but came back with two emphatic punchouts to seal the result.
LSU didn’t muster a ton of support at the plate, but it was more than enough.
The Tigers struck first, aided by a Rice error to begin the second inning. Josh Smith doubled home the first run of the game with a ball that kicked up chalk down the right-field line. Beau Jordan followed with a single and Mike Papierski bunted Smith home on a perfectly-executed suicide squeeze play.
Jake Slaughter then lined a two-out single to center for the third run of the inning, picking up his first RBI since May 9. The freshman made his second start at first base in place of the injured Nick Coomes.
“We didn’t hit the ball as well as we have been hitting it, but we played pretty good defense,” Mainieri said. “We had a few timely hits, and with the way Eric was pitching, it turned out to be enough.”
Walker worked around a leadoff double to post an all-important shutdown inning and let his offense get back to work.
Robertson led off with a ringing double and raced home on a shallow sacrifice fly from Antoine Duplantis. One inning later, Robertson brought home a run with a hard-hit fielder’s choice after Rice walked the bases loaded.
LSU didn’t manage a hit between the third inning and the ninth.
It mattered little.
At one point Walker retired 11 in a row with machine-like efficiency. He blew fastballs past Rice’s Nos. 1 and 3 hitters to strand a leadoff double at third base in the sixth. He struck out two more in the seventh, continuing to roll in his third pass through the order.
Rice started to square Walker up in the eighth, but a diving play by Robertson up the middle stole a leadoff single. After a single, Cole Freeman turned in a nifty sliding stop to get a force at second to help Walker get out of the inning.