By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Eric Walker was pulled after throwing just four pitches in the third inning of his College World Series start against Oregon State Monday night.
The culprit was forearm stiffness, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said during an in-game interview on the ESPN Broadcast. Walker gestured to the dugout for Mainieri and LSU trainer Cory Couture to come lift him from the game.
“In his third warmup pitch before the third inning he just felt his forearm tighten up,” Mainieri said. “It became unbearable so we had to take him out. I don’t think there’s anything structurally wrong. He just has a fatigued muscle.”
Walker had dealt with forearm tightness last week, Mainieri told reporters on Friday, but was declared “100 percent healthy” after a throwing session Saturday morning away from TD Ameritrade Park.
The freshman right hander left trailing 1-0 in the top of the third inning, relieved by fellow right-hander Caleb Gilbert. He’d allowed two hits and thrown 20 pitches. The game got out of hand not too long after, with the Beavers pummeling LSU 13-1.
Walker insisted he’d felt fine all weekend and through the first two innings. He began to feel the tightness during his warm-up tosses before the third, and not long after he was motioning to come out of the game.
“I felt good the first two innings,” Walker said. “At the end, I just got too tight to throw. I thought it was best for the team to come out … Obviously I didn’t want to hurt my team by being in there if I was too tight to throw effectively. I felt great leading up to this. The first two innings felt great.”
Mainieri has a well-documented track record of protecting his arms, at times even to the point of drawing criticism for playing it too safe when it comes to bringing guys back on short rest.
The coach was as stunned as anyone that Walker’s forearm tightness flared back up. He told reporters off the postgame podium that the training staff had given Walker the green light after Saturday’s throwing session.
“We don’t think it’s anything serious,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s just a fatigued muscle. He’s pitched more innings this year than he ever has, and I think he’s running a little bit dry. So we’ll see if he’ll be available if we’re fortunate enough to make it to the final round. But we’re just not sure.”
The LSU bullpen had played a central role in LSU’s 17-game winning streak.
Overextended by Walker’s early exit, it came unraveled against Oregon State.
It’s hard to fault Gilbert for the two unearned runs that came home on his watch, but the cavalcade of relievers that followed couldn’t find the strike zone and poured gasoline on the fire.
Seven relievers issued 12 walks and hit a batter in seven relatively ineffective innings of work. That’s the most walks handed out by an LSU team in a single game since 2000. Of the eight runs Oregon State scored in the sixth and seventh innings, seven reached via free passes.
“It was tough,” Mainieri said. “The best pitch in baseball is a strike. I’ve seen a lot of games in my life, over 2,000 of them. But when you walk a lot of batters, you greatly reduce your chances of winning. I’ve learned that.”
No one struggled more mightily than Hunter Newman. Brought in to keep it a four-run game, Newman issued a walk to load the bases and then served up a first-pitch grand slam to KJ Harrison that broke the game open.
Newman walked three more batters and hit one before being lifted in the sixth inning. He was charged with five earned runs in one-plus inning of work. Only 15 of his 38 pitches found the strike zone.
“I just didn’t have my stuff tonight,” Newman said. “I guess that’s the game of baseball. Hopefully I’ll come out and be a lot better on Wednesday.”
Consider that Newman had allowed just three earned runs all season before Monday. His ERA jumped from 1.07 to 2.73 in the course of an outing.
Once he departed, LSU turned to some pitchers that haven’t worked in a while. Both Russell Reynolds and Austin Bain made their first appearance since May 16.
LSU tied a College World Series record with eight pitchers used. It was the fourth time in history that mark has been set. The two most recent occasions were both LSU in 2015.
LSU is officially in survival mode, but the spaced-out College World Series format does allow Mainieri to line up his horses for the next two games.
Lefty Jared Poche’ will start against Florida State on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Florida State has been designated as the home game for the elimination contest.
If LSU is able to win and advance, right-handed Alex Lange will get the ball against Oregon State. LSU would need to defeat the Beavers twice to advance.