By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”5″]J[/su_dropcap]ared Poche’ had always been part of a dynamic duo since arriving at LSU for the 2014 season. He spent his true freshman season playing sidekick to the great Aaron Nola. The following two campaigns he tag-teamed with another right-handed ace, Alex Lange, atop the rotation in one order or the other.
What the senior lefty never had was a solid No. 3 behind him to round out the weekend rotation. There’d been some brief glimpses of potential, promising non-conference starts from the likes of Jake Godfrey, Kyle Bouman and John Valek, among others, but once Southeastern Conference play — the real regular season, as far as LSU is concerned — rolled around, something always seemed to happen, as Poche’ puts it.
Death, taxes and Johnny Wholestaff closing out an SEC series. Finding the answer to LSU’s annual third starter quagmire had become almost a running joke around this team the past few years. It reached a fever pitch when the Tigers’ last trip to Omaha in 2015 ended with a reliever starting a lopsided game three defeat.
Enter Eric Walker.
The reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week carries a 16-inning shutout streak into his start against Ole Miss on Saturday. He followed up seven scoreless innings in a rubber match against Texas A&M with his first career complete-game shutout on the road against Arkansas, the most powerful lineup in the SEC.
Before those gems, it had been nearly four calendar years since a starting pitcher not named Nola, Lange or Poche’ completed seven innings in an SEC game for LSU. That one belonged to Cody Glenn, who limited Alabama to one run over eight innings on April 21, 2013. He went 7+ innings in two SEC starts that season.
Over the past three seasons, LSU’s array of third starters have begun 28 SEC games. They allowed 65 earned runs in 101.1 cumulative innings, which equates to an ERA of 5.77. Four of the 28 starts were ‘quality’ starts, which denotes a starter completing at least six innings while allowing three or fewer runs. None recorded more than a single out in the seventh inning.
Three of those four quality outings came last season from Valek, a senior one-off who transferred to LSU once Akron disbanded its baseball program. Walker has already matched that total through his first four career SEC starts. Walker is 4-0 overall with an ERA of 2.45, and he’d be 6-0 were it not for a pair of blown saves in games he left with a lead.
“Everyone always griped that we never have a third starter,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri says. “Now we’ve got a third starter. We used to have a third starter named Aaron Nola, if you remember that. He was pretty good. That was probably the last time. We talked about that on the plane ride back from Arkansas.
“I’m not trying to compare him to Aaron Nola. Lord almighty, Aaron Nola was the best I’ve ever had. But if you take what he’s done at this point in his career and compare it to what Nola did, it has to be comparable.”
So who is this rookie from Texas who has seemingly put to rest three running years of frustration about the back end of the rotation?
Teammates and coaches — past and present — describe a baby-faced, “wise beyond his years” rookie with an old school approach to pitching modeled after his childhood hero; an unassuming, whatever-the-team-needs leader on the diamond and the high school gridiron; a tenacious competitor who faced down a likely No. 1 overall pick during football practice as a sophomore and played in a Texas 6A playoff game seven weeks after breaking his leg; an inordinately unflappable underclassmen with all the intangibles a coach could want.
What he doesn’t have, contrary to past freshmen phenoms like Nola and Lange, is a mid-90s fastball. Not that it’s ever slowed him down before.
EVEN GROWING UP in the heart of Texas, Nolan Ryan was a bit before Walker’s time. Instead, his boyhood idol was all-time Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs great Greg Maddux. The model of consistency who is the only pitcher in MLB history to win at least 15 games in 17 straight seasons.
Maddux didn’t throw particularly hard, either. Armed with perhaps the best command the sport has ever seen, an intellect that earned him the nickname “The Professor,” and the fielding skills to win 18 Gold Gloves, the first ballot Hall-of-Famer dominated the big leagues right through the heart of the Steroid Era. Hitters kept getting bigger and stronger, and Maddux carved them up all the same.
“I remember hearing Greg Maddux talking about it,” Alan Dunn, LSU’s resident pitching guru, says. “He said ‘When you can command four pitches, you’re really, really smart. And when you can command one pitch, you’re really dumb.’ And that’s the difference.
“Command opens up so many things that you can do. You can situational pitch. You can manage the game. You’re not afraid to do things that call for it, and that’s the difference between pitching and throwing.”
Dunn is a relentless preacher of fastball command. Without it, he reminds his charges on a near-daily basis, no success can be achieved. Everything else works off the fastball, and if a pitcher can command his off-speed pitches, now you’re really talking.
That’s been the key to Walker’s success, according to Dunn. His fastball command has been impeccable. And since his third start, a gem against Texas Tech back in his home state at Minute Maid Park, he’s made deft use of his changeup to keep hitters off balance. He’ll throw it in any count; behind 2-0 or ahead 1-2.
It’s not as intimidating as a Lange wipeout curveball, but the changeup is Walker’s bread and butter. It also accentuates his ability to dot the corners with his fastball.
“Instead of just throwing changeups in traditional changeup counts, he’s using it as an out pitch,” Mainieri says. “He’s using it behind in the count. And when you have to respect that changeup, that 87 mph fastball seems faster than that.”
LSU’s pitching coach calls the game via hand signals to the catcher. Walker’s ability to locate all of his pitches makes him a joy to call games for — and to catch.
“He couldn’t miss,” says Nick Coomes, who caught Walker’s 2-0 shutout of Arkansas Sunday. “It was very easy on my part. He’s very easy to catch.”
What makes Walker rare is that he’s advanced enough mentally to think along with Dunn as he calls the game. He possesses a “wise for his age” understanding of sequencing and situational pitching, Dunn says. He gets why throwing a fastball inside early in the count can set up a put-away changeup on the outer third of the plate two pitches later.
“You’re trying to keep the hitter off balanced whether it’s a curveball to a guy or a changeup to a guy,” Walker says. “You can’t really live off just fastball. I think everyone is pretty much aware of that. But I’ve definitely done more to mix it in.”
Dunn has nurtured that gift in their time together, but the roots of Walker’s advanced acuity stretch back to Texas.
DAVE ACTON ISN’T particularly fond of the way prep pitchers are trained nowadays. The scouting community’s longstanding obsession with velocity has seeped into even the most developmental levels of the game. Pitchers are trying to throw harder and harder at younger ages, and if somebody can run it up there in the mid-to-upper 90s, who the hell cares where it’s going? The way they see it, you can teach them how to pitch later.
Acton has coached baseball for the past 28 years. He’s currently the head coach and general manager of the Arlington A’s, a Premier Baseball club team based in Texas. He’s a former catcher himself, and led by his pitching coach, Mike Bacsik, Sr. — who pitched for the Texas Rangers under Billy Martin in the ‘70s — impart an old school approach.
“These guys really emphasize trying to locate and things like that,” Acton says. “We’ve still got to press velo because that’s the way the times are, but to be honest, the guys who I’ve worked with who went on to the big leagues all had secondary pitches and could spot up pretty good.
“You’ve got to get people out. It’s not a carnival game.”
Walker pitched for the Arlington A’s for two years. He was around the travel team a few summers before that as his other brother, Ryan, played for Acton. Their parents, Dean and Tammy Walker, work as a real estate appraiser and a flight attendant, respectively.
Ryan got Eric into baseball at an early age. Big brother taught little brother the basics of the game. Ryan then went on to play for UT-Arlington and is presently a versatile Double-A prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization.
Young Eric was already an efficient operator by the time he began pitching for the Arlington A’s. He routinely three 60- or 70-pitch complete games on cruise control.
He cracked the varsity rotation at Arlington Martin High School during his sophomore season. He finished his three-year run at Martin with a 27-5 record, 295 strikeouts and a 2015 Dallas/Fort Worth All-Area Pitcher of the Year honor.
But it was under Acton and Bacsik that Walker learned a crucial lesson that continues to aid him as he navigates SEC lineups today, something that a lot of power pitchers don’t learn — essentially because they don’t have to — until their late 20s or early 30s: the art of working inside.
“Eric was a guy that basically learned his craft of setting up hitters,” Actos says. “He learned to throw inside knowing that he could get people out with his fastball. I think that was the biggest thing that he learned coming up. You don’t have to throw 98. You just have to locate. That’s what he learned with us, how to set up hitters.”
He continues: [perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It’s kind of like Greg Maddux. Eric could run it up there at 92 mph, but with his pitchability, the way he pitches, he can sit at 88-90 and be most successful. He’s a lot like (Maddux). He reminds me a lot of Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs. He’s just a little smaller version, but Eric is still growing. I also believe his velo will pick up even more.”[/perfectpullquote]
IT TAKES A certain amount of courage to challenge a hulking SEC slugger inside with an 88 mph fastball in front of 10,000 people. It takes another amount entirely to take off and run with a future first-overall pick in the NFL Draft chasing you in hot pursuit.
Walker was a three-year starting quarterback for Martin High School in his hometown of Arlington, a reputable 6A Texas high school powerhouse. At a school of more than 3,000 students, a 6-foot tall, 160-someodd-pound sophomore took over as the starting quarterback.
Practice would prove a daunting ask in its own right. Walker’s sophomore year at Martin overlapped with the senior season of one Myles Garrett, the freakish defensive end who went on to star at Texas A&M and is expected to be selected first overall in this month’s NFL Draft.
Martin coach Bob Wager remembers the first time he saw Walker break the huddle with the varsity club.
“He was trying to get away from Myles Garrett,” Wager laughs. “That’s what everyone did around here. Duck and hope for the best.”
Walker certainly did a lot of running around in those days to balance his two athletic passions. During an average spring day, Walker would get an hour-long workout in with the football team during an athletic period before lunch. He’d later go to baseball practice from 3-5 p.m. before coming back to the weight room to take part in the football team’s second offseason lift.
Wager speaks glowingly about his former quarterback. He revels in Walker’s early-career success at LSU like a proud parent. The coach shared a story he’d never before revealed that, to him, epitomizes the kind of field general Walker is.
Martin High began the 2014 season with high hopes. One reason was Walker, then a junior returning for his second season under center. Unfortunately, Walker broke a bone in his leg — right above the ankle, as Wager recalls — during the first district game of the season.
Walker’s season was believed to be over. He spent the next seven weeks mentoring his understudy, attending every play and standing by watchfully as the Warriors ripped off seven consecutive wins through the district season to set up another showdown with powerhouse Allen High School in the regional semifinals.
The game was set to be played on the Friday after Thanksgiving on the campus of North Texas in Denton. As practice wrapped up Tuesday, Walker approached his coach and asked if they could talk off to the side.
“Eric comes up to me after practice and says ‘Coach, how would you feel about me playing Friday?’” Wager recounts. “I said ‘Well, I think that’d be great, Eric. But I think you probably need to speak to your doctor and your parents first.’ He’d already talked to his parents and had an appointment with the doctor in the morning.”
Walker’s mom, Tammy, worked for the Dallas Cowboys. The team’s official doctor checked him out that Wednesday morning and cleared him medically. Wager phones the Walkers just to make sure everything was on the up and up.
Dean and Tammy Walker informed him that Eric had sat them down at the dinner table to address the situation the night before.
“This is a very respectful kid,” Wager says. “I can’t imagine him not abiding by his coach or parents’ wishes. But he said ‘No, Dad, you don’t understand what I’m saying. I’m playing.’”
This left Wager with something of a conundrum. He gathered the other captains to inform them that Walker, a captain in his own right, would be available against Allen High. He didn’t tell another soul and decided to start the backup who’d led Martin High through the regular season.
But once the game turned into a wild, O.K. Corral-style shootout, Wager brought Walker out of the proverbial bullpen. The crowd of roughly 25,000 strong erupted, Wager says, and Walker played flawlessly in defeat as Allen — led by another two-sport stud, Kyler Murray — edged Martin 69-54 in an instant classic.
“That’s who Eric Walker is,” Wager says. “Practice is overrated. I’m agonizing about the practice schedule every day. This guy hasn’t done anything in seven weeks, comes off the bench and nearly knocks them off.”
Walker posted his strongest individual season during his senior year, tossing 18 touchdowns versus six interceptions to lead Martin back to the 6A playoffs, falling to Allen again in AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
That’ll likely be the last competitive football game Walker ever plays. Does it ever bother Wager that his signal caller decided to leave the game behind for baseball?
Not one bit. Wager remains Walker’s biggest fan.
“I don’t care if he’s playing checkers at LSU,” Wager says. “I love Eric Walker. And whatever he decides to put his time and energy in, he’s going to be wildly successful in it.”