By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU’s emerging ace in the hole proved himself to be the Tigers’ trump card once again.
Eric Walker proved the difference in another tight rubber match, holding Ole Miss to two runs on six hits across 6.2 efficient innings of work. The LSU bullpen stranded the tying run in scoring position in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings to nail down a 3-2 result and a series victory at Alex Box Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
LSU has now won consecutive SEC West series thanks to rubber match victories behind its true freshman third starter. Walker struck out five and didn’t walk a batter to improve to 5-0 while LSU improved to 25-12 overall and 9-6 at the halfway point of the SEC season.
“Walker is amazing,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Not only is he giving us a solid third starter, but he’s a really quality pitcher in the SEC. I knew it wasn’t going to be a high-scoring game. He kept us right there and made some big pitches. He seems like a seasoned veteran now.”
Still, he needed help from his defense — Cole Freeman in particular — and a pick-me-up from the relief corps to close it out as Walker ran out of gas and started behind hitters in the seventh inning.
LSU took a 3-1 lead into the inning. Walker had cruised through the first six throwing just 66 pitches, but Nick Fortes singled up the middle with two outs to bring the Rebels back within a run, and another single chased Walker from the game.
Zack Hess entered as a light drizzle began to fall and struck out Bryan Seamster on four pitches to extinguish the threat. The emerging late-inning weapon struck out the first two batters of the eighth inning before allowing consecutive singles that once again put the tying run in scoring position.
Even with Hunter Newman ready in the bullpen, Mainieri stuck with Hess. His faith in the freshman was rewarded as Hess induced a grounder to second base to escape again.
“Zack was amazing again,” Mainieri said. “That’s twice now coming out of the pen where we probably wouldn’t have won the game were it not for his performance … I was tempted to leave him in for the ninth inning, but I kept thinking back to the Texas A&M game, and thinking how much I wished I had Hunter Newman to pitch the ninth.”
Newman then came on to worked around a leadoff walk to earn his fifth save of the season. A sac bunt put the tying run at second base, but Newman got a called strike three on a looping 3-2 curveball for the second out and Freeman leaped to snare a humpback line drive that almost certainly would’ve tied the game had to landed in shallow right field.
“I knew they were looking for that breaking ball because he throws it so well,” Freeman said. “So I was a little bit shifted over, and once he hit it, at first, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get to it, but I saw he kind of top spun it and I knew I was going to at least be able to give it a good try. Luckily I was able to get up high enough to end it.”
“I told Cole Freeman don’t let anybody ever make fun of you for being short again,” Mainieri smiled.
LSU took an early lead thanks to the assistance of two unforced errors. Jordan Romero led off the second inning with a single to left, and took second base once the ball was bobbled in the outfield. He scored when Rebel second baseman Tate Blackman booted a routine ground ball with two outs.
Blackman got the run back in the next inning, however. He connected on another solo home run to left, his third of the series, to even the game at one apiece. The blast also snapped a string of 18 consecutive scoreless innings for Walker.
The Tigers retook the lead in the bottom of the inning on a two-out solo home run to right off the bat of Greg Deichmann, his 12th of the season. He’s now surpassed his home run total from a year ago in just 37 games.
Walker settled into a groove from there, retiring the next seven batters in a row after the Blackman home run. Grae Kessinger’s hustle double broke that streak, and the Rebels advanced the tying run to third base with one in the sixth inning, which forced LSU to bring the infield in.
Will Golsan scalded a ball the other way — right at Freeman. The second baseman made the catch and fired to third to double off the runner and end the inning. Freeman turned in another web gem earlier, ranging behind the bag and making a throw across his body from shallow left field for an out.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said Deichmann, who had a front row seat for all three gems. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he caught a ball over the lights some how. That dude covers every side of the field.”
LSU rode that momentum into an insurance run in the bottom of the inning. Nick Coomes extended his hitting streak to six games with an opposite field double. Jake Slaughter then pinch ran for him and scored easily on a RBI single up the middle from Josh Smith.
Smith, who singled to advance Romero to third base back in the second inning, owns all three of LSU’s hits with runners in scoring position over the final two games of the series. That extra cushion proved decisive as Ole Miss came back with a run in the top of the seventh.
LSU will be back in action on Tuesday night as Lamar comes to Alex Box Stadium. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.