By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Given the diagnosis he feared since walking off the mound in Omaha, Eric Walker is taking the tough news in stride.
The challenge for LSU will be to do the same.
Walker, the promising freshman right hander, will undergo Tommy John surgery next week and miss the entire 2018 season, LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced Thursday.
LSU’s team doctor recommended surgery last week after Walker underwent an MRI after the team returned home from the College World Series. A second opinion from Walker’s personal doctor in Texas, who also consults for the Texas Rangers, confirmed that Walker would require elbow surgery.
“It’s not the news we’d all had hoped for,” Mainieri said in a telephone interview Thursday. “But there’s some comfort in knowing that it’s going to get fixed and he should come back stronger than ever. It’s just not going to happen next year.”
Recovery is typically a 12-month recovery process, and Mainieri said LSU expects Walker to be healthy and ready to participate in fall practices ahead of the 2019 season. He’d be a redshirt sophomore heading into that campaign.
The coach expressed optimism from his conversations with the young pitcher after hearing the bad news.
“Eric is a really tough-minded kid,” Mainieri said. “Initially, there was a little period of mourning — feeling sad and sorry for yourself — but he came to grips with it and said, ‘Hey, this is the next challenge in my life that I’ve got to meet head on.’ The positive attitude helps.”
Switching focus to the short term, LSU now faces a substantially daunting challenge of its own.
Losing Walker means LSU will have to replace its entire starting rotation next season. The trio of Walker, Alex Lange and Jared Poche’ was the backbone of a 2017 club that made it all the way to the College World Series Finals.
As expected, Mainieri said the plan heading into the fall will be for Zack Hess and Caleb Gilbert to be groomed as starting pitchers. More final decisions on their 2018 roles will be made after the conclusion of fall practices, the coach said.
Hess, who garnered national fame as LSU’s flame-throwing closer down the stretch, is going to Cape Cod to make three starts.
LSU wasn’t initially keen on the idea, weary of how intense the freshman’s work load was in Omaha, but Hess pushed for it in hopes of furthering his development as a starting pitcher. He’ll be on a strict 60-pitch limit in each of those outings.
“Our inclination was to shut him down for the summer, but Zack really wanted to go,” Mainieri said. “He wants to develop a starter’s routine and he wants to work on his changeup in competition. I’m sure the exposure to the professional scouts is something he wanted to do as well.”
Returning contributors like Todd Peterson, Nick Bush and Matt Beck will all be given opportunities to step into larger roles as well.
In addition, LSU will bring 11 new pitchers into the program, Mainieri said, a mix of incoming freshmen and junior college transfers.
“We’ve just got to roll up our sleeves and get back to work,” Mainieri said. “We already felt like we had to reconstruct a new pitching staff because we’d lost so many guys. Even before Eric’s injury. So it just adds to the urgency of developing new pitchers who can help us in 2018.
“I can’t tell you who it’s going to be. We’ve got a lot of new guys coming in, and we like them all. Hopefully some will rise to the challenge.”
It’s times like this that LSU relies heavily on the expertise of pitching coach Alan Dunn, who specializes in the developmental aspect of his job.
“This is when Alan is at his best,” Mainieri said. “He’s a teacher. He’ll work with these guys and show them what they need to do. We’ve got some good arms coming in. They just haven’t pitched for LSU yet.”