By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Opening day was all about the veterans for LSU, with the ‘Fab Four’ and Alex Lange playing starring roles during an emotional double-header sweep of Army.
On Sunday, it was predominantly the new guys took their turns in the spotlight for the first time.
LSU batted around in a six-run fourth inning to defeat Air Force 10-3 and complete an opening weekend sweep on a gorgeous afternoon at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers continued to play unseasonably crisp baseball in all facets to close out the season’s first weekend.
“It’s hard to find fault in how we played this weekend,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “but there’s a few things I see that we can get better at. It’s going to be a long season. That’s just three down out of 56.”
Eric Walker’s highly-anticipated college debut picked up right there his veteran rotation mates left off the day before. He limited Air Force to one earned run in five innings and struck out six to earn his first career victory.
Third baseman Josh Smith, another rookie, broke a 2-2 tie in the fourth inning with a towering three-run blast to right field off Jacob DeVreis.
First baseman Jake Slaughter went 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored. Together Smith and Slaughter finished their first weekend as Tigers hitting .466 (7-for-15) with two home runs, eight RBI and six runs scored.
The rookies have done their part in the field, as well.
Smith turned in an early web gem Sunday with a backhanded pick and long throw from near the foul line. Slaughter made one early, saving an error with a swipe tag on a wide throw to first, and another one late, running with his back to the infield for a sliding grab near the bullpen.
“Honestly, the biggest thing was the way our freshmen played,” Cole Freeman said. “That just shows what y’all get to watch for the coming three years. It’s going to be exciting. I’m just excited to see what they can do and how much better they can get. Think about it, it’s only three games and they’re already doing this. I’m just happy that I get to play a year with them.”
Still, given LSU’s recent and well-documented troubles finding a reliable third starter, it’s the rookie right-hander on the mound who draws the headlines.
Walker mowed down the first 10 batters he faced with five strikeouts. Four of the punchouts came via his 88-90 mph fastball, which he proved capable of putting wherever he wanted within the strike zone. He worked in a curveball and changeup as well.
A hard single into center field began a two-run Air Force rally in the fourth. Walker wasn’t able to retire a pair of hitters in two-strike counts — one walked, the other drove in a run with a single. The other run came home on an errant throw from Smith, but Walker induced a 6-4-3 double play to limit the damage.
“It was great to see him come out and have some success in his first start,” Greg Deichmann said. “He got in a little bit of a jam, but that’s good that it happened to him now. He got to work out of it and finish up strong.”
Up to that point LSU had managed just a walk against DeVreis. Kramer Robertson began the inning with an opposite-field single — LSU’s first hit of the afternoon — and Deichmann promptly tied the game with an absolute missile of a home run to right field, his second of the weekend.
Slaughter kept the momentum going with a single through the right side, and after two outs, Mike Papierski improbably reached on an infield single to set the stage for Smith’s blast.
Smith had come within a couple of feet of a home run during his first at-bat against the lefty. The rookie fell behind in the count 1-2 with some ugly-looking swings, but when DeVreis made a mistake out over the plate, he didn’t miss.
Mainieri heaped praise on the way he responded to the error in the top of the inning with a clutch blast in the bottom half.
“I think we have a really outstanding player on our hands in that kid,” Mainieri said of Smith. “So between the two of them, the future looks bright for LSU baseball.”
Freeman (2-3, RBI, R, SB) followed the home run with a hard double to left field and scored from second base on a wild pitch to the backstop. Next time up Freeman drove in Smith, who walked and stole second base, with an RBI single.
Air Force got a run back in the sixth thanks to a solo home run from Tyler Jones. He turned on a fastball from hard-throwing rookie Zack Hess, who relieved Walker, and drilled it off the foul pole in left. Hess did pick up a pair of strikeouts in the frame.
Robertson broke the game open with a two-run double to left in the eighth inning, his third hit of the afternoon. Meanwhile freshman Todd Peterson and veterans Doug Norman and Hunter Newman closed things out with a scoreless inning of work apiece.
LSU will hit the road for the first time Tuesday night to take on UNO in the first of two midweek games.
– Caleb Gilbert will likely make the start for LSU on Tuesday night at UNO, Mainieri said, though whoever takes the ball first won’t be in the game long. Expect Mainieri to chop the game up among a handful of arms. Gilbert worked out of the bullpen during the early game Saturday.
– Reliever Collin Strall entered as a late-game sub at second base for the second time this weekend. Mainieri confirmed LSU is grooming Strall as a backup infielder in addition to his relief duties. Strall played infield in high school and allows Mainieri to rest Freeman in blowouts.
– Outfielder Antoine Duplantis finished the weekend as the only starter without a hit. He’s 0-for-12, but Mainieri said he felt the numbers don’t accurately reflect how well Duplantis swung the bat. You’ll remember the Lafayette native began his freshman season by hitting in his first 19 career games.
– Zack Hess remains on schedule to start Wednesday against Hofstra.