By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
A true freshman stole the show on Senior Day.
Eric Walker took a no-hit bid into the eighth inning en route to firing eight spectacular innings of one-run ball. LSU roughed up Auburn ace Casey Mize and pounded the Plainsmen 9-1 on Saturday afternoon to complete a dominant three-game sweep at Alex Box Stadium.
“The show today was Eric Walker,” said catcher Mike Papierski, who homered for the second time in as many days. “Everything was working for him today. Fastball command was there. Slider command was there. Changeup was there … Throws lots of strikes. That’s the name of the game.”
The zeroes on the scoreboard began adding up in Walker’s mind around the fourth of fifth inning. It kicked into another gear when third baseman Josh Smith made a leaping stab on a line drive to steal a double in the eighth inning, helping his roommate inch within five outs of history.
“When you watch MLB games, there’s always that one play that kinda saves it,” Walker said. “To be honest, I thought that was it.”
However, two batters later, No. 9 hitter Sam Gillikin took a fastball on the outer third of the plate the other way for a solo home run to left that broke up the no-hitter and the shutout. It will go down as the only hit Walker allowed Saturday.
The rookie right hander issued a one-out walk in the first inning before settling into a real groove. He retired the next 18 hitters he faced with relative ease until Conor Davis worked a walk in the seventh inning. He issued another walk two batters later before getting a fly ball to escape unscathed.
It was a much-needed bounce back effort amid weeks of questions as to whether Walker had hit the proverbial rookie wall. He’d been tagged for 15 runs on 21 hits over 10.2 innings in his last three starts.
“I think I was making steps forward,” Walker said. “The last four weeks I haven’t felt great. I don’t think that’s a secret and the results haven’t been what I wanted, but I thought there were steps forward the last few weeks. I felt a lot better this week.”
Walker picked up where his rotation mates left off on a weekend when LSU starting pitching allowed two earned run in 23.2 innings of immaculate work. The trio are a major reason LSU has won eight of its last nine league games down the home stretch.
The clean sweep improves LSU to 35-17 overall and 18-9 in the Southeastern Conference, meaning LSU will head to Starkville next weekend with a chance to win the SEC West. Auburn, which has lost seven in a row, drops to 32-21 overall and 14-13 in league play.
“I thought we played outstanding baseball in every facet of the game,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Pitching was phenomenal. Relief pitching was outstanding. Our defense, phew, I don’t even know how to describe it. Just fantastic all weekend … We had some very unselfish situational hitting. Guys just laying it all there for the team and they did what they had to do. Everyone knew what was at stake this weekend.
“Starting next weekend we play for championships every weekend. That’s why players come to LSU.”
The bottom of the LSU lineup jumped all over one of the nastiest pitchers in the country by attacking early in the count.
Nick Coomes led off the second inning with a first-pitch double to right field. Smith singled to left to put runners on the corners. Beau Jordan singled through the right side to put LSU on the board and Papierski laid down a perfect safety squeeze to score Smith. None of them saw more than two pitches.
Zach Watson stayed red hot with a hard single to left to set up runners on the corners yet again and Kramer Robertson lifted Mize’s first offering to right field for a sacrifice fly to cap the three-run inning.
“(Hitting coach) Micah (Gibbs) talks about hitting the fastball and laying off everything else until two strikes,” Papierski said. “That’s what we did. Just put the barrel on the ball and it found holes. We came out swinging the bats this weekend. It felt good to put up three games in a row against really good pitching.”
Mize, who entered the game averaging north of 12 strikeouts per nine innings, didn’t record his first until the fourth. One batter later Smith doubled to right off Mize’s second offering, his second hit in as many at-bats.
That set the stage for Papierski, and this time, he didn’t bunt. Mize left a 0-2 splitter hanging up in the zone and Papierski crushed to out to right center field for his second two-run home run in three plate appearances. It looked like a carbon copy of his game-winning blast Saturday night.
It was the first home run of the season allowed by Mize. He departed after four innings, his shortest start of the season, having allowed a season-high five earned runs.
LSU kept tacking on after his departure. Smith led off the sixth with a walk — his third time on base — and advanced to third base on two wild pitches. Jordan then lifted a sac fly to deep left field and Smith came home with his third run of the afternoon.
The wheels then came fully off for the visitors. Cole Freeman skied a popup to shallow right field with runners on second and third and two outs. It landed equidistant between two perplexed fielders for a two-run single. It’ll look like a line drive in the box score. Robertson brought home another run with a ground ball in the eighth to cap the scoring.
LSU will close out the regular-season home schedule on Tuesday night against Northwestern State before traveling to take on Mississippi State in a series set to begin Thursday night.