By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
HOOVER, Ala. — Eric Walker strolled off the mound to a standing ovation from the 13,000 strong — most adorned in purple and gold — packed into the Hoover Met on Sunday afternoon just having stymied one of the hottest lineups in college baseball to one run in 7.2 innings.
A boyish grin appeared on the freshman’s face as the fans chanted his name interspersed with rhythmic clapping. It was still there when he appeared for the postgame press conference carrying the pointy obelisk signifying the Tigers were the 2017 Southeastern Conference Tournament champs.
“That’s why you come to LSU,” Walker said, still looking rather amazed at what had transpired.
Sometime in between, as Walker and his coach, Paul Mainieri, made their way to the SEC Network set for an interview.
Walker expressed his astonishment at the crowd. The coach told his rookie-in-name-only it was time to start dreaming even bigger.
“I explained to him that, if everything goes according to plan, in a few weeks you’ll be pitching in front of crowds twice this size in a town called Omaha,” Mainieri said.
Walker’s emergence as a third starter behind veterans Alex Lange and Jared Poche’ is a big reason LSU came to Hoover with a chance to secure another national seed in the first place.
The Tigers might not have been in position to mount such a late run were it not for the two-hit shutout he fired in Fayetteville back in April against the same loaded Arkansas club he tied in knots Sunday.
Walker poured cold water on a scalding lineup that hung 16 runs on Florida one day earlier, tagging stud Brady Singer for eight runs in 1+ innings. He allowed just a solo homer and struck out eight, including Tournament MVP Chad Spanberger, who the right-hander retired three times without incident.
“Obviously the talent is there, but I think what makes him different is his maturity,” second baseman Cole Freeman said. “You threw a freshman out there on the biggest stage we’ve played on all year and it just looked like another game.”
As Mainieri articulated, the stage is only going to get bigger from here. LSU will host an NCAA Regional next weekend in Baton Rouge, and if they survive, a super regional after that. Walker will be slated to start a regional championship game and a winner-take-all game three in those rounds, respectively.
That’s what made Sunday’s outing so pivotal. LSU’s season wasn’t going to end in Hoover one way or the other, but it’s the closest thing to NCAA Tournament pressure. There’s no way to simulate pitching for a championship.
“How can a player be prepared for that if he doesn’t go through these kinds of experiences?” Mainieri said. “I think he’s just risen to the occasion … so we felt very confident giving him the ball. But even in my wildest imagination I didn’t think he’d go 7.2 innings against this team.”
The trio of Lange, Poche’ and Walker allowed all of one run across 20.1 innings in Hoover. As hot as LSU’s bats have been, that rotation remains the backbone of LSU’s championship aspirations. It’s foolhardy to expect to score double-digit runs against the rest of the nation’s elite on a regular basis.
And therein lies what Mainieri and Co. think may be different about this club than some of the LSU teams that’ve fallen short to Omaha or not stayed long once they arrived.
If LSU finds itself in a do-or-die game with a championship on the line, they’ve got a proven pitcher with ice water in his veins to turn to.
Walker affirmed as much on a Sunday afternoon in Hoover. Mainieri even told him to take the trophy home and sleep with it so he doesn’t forget it.