Behind freshman pitcher Eric Walker, LSU (46-17) defeated Rice (33-31) to win the 2017 Baton Rouge Regional and advance to host a Super Regional next weekend.
Walker completely handcuffed the Rice lineup, allowing seven hits in 8 innings of work, two of which came before he was pulled in the ninth inning. He walked none, struck out eight and never got into a three ball count. He was in line for a Maddux, or a complete game shutout with less than 100 pitches thrown, before he was pulled after giving up back to back singles. And it was still possible for him to achieve that given how his night ended at 98 pitches with a double play possible.
Tonight was the third time Walker pitched LSU to a championship in as many weeks. Against Mississippi State he was good enough to keep the Bulldogs at bay and allow the Tigers a SEC regular season co-championship, last Sunday he was sterling against Arkansas in LSU’s SEC Tournament championship, and Sunday night he was dominant and pushed LSU to their 23rd regional championship.
“Pitching for a championship really fired me up,” Walker said. “I love that situation. I feel like I tend to thrive under pressure.”
“We’re not surprised anymore,” LSU head coach Mainieri said of his freshman starter. “He’s done it so many times for us, basically put the team on his back and was the leader.”
“When we recruited Eric, we saw something special. He’s a great leader with great composure and a great competitor. He’s 18 years old so we’re not going to compare him to Greg Maddux but we knew he had that style of pitching where we knew he was going to rely on his command, changing speeds, and making big pitches at big times. And he’s been everything we hoped he’d be. I have as much confidence in him as I have with anybody on our staff.”
When his catcher Michael Papierski learned that Walker never entered a three-ball count, he hung his head in shock. Walker didn’t notice it either.
“He gets ahead of batters,” Papierski said. “He gets a lot of first pitch swings and he can throw a changeup for a strike whenever he wants and he can throw a fastball for a strike whenever he wants and even the slider was really good today. He and (Alan Dunn) worked on that after the SEC Championship and he could throw that on the outside corner to a righty.”
“He hasn’t let us down. He’s gone out there and competed and won us three championships. His maturity level is off the roof.”
After going 1-2-3 to start the game, LSU opened the scoring in the second when Greg Deichmann reached on an error on the third baseman before stealing second and taking third on an error on the throw down. Josh Smith knocked him in with a double to the right field corner, advancing to third on Beau Jordan’s single to left. Papierski skillfully squeezed Smith home and Jake Slaughter pulled back on what would have been a strike three call and singled in Jordan on the next pitch to give LSU a 3-0 lead.
Kramer Robertson led off the third inning with a double and moved to third on Cole Freeman’s bunt single, scoring Antoine Duplantis’ sac fly to shallow right to put the Tigers up 4-0. LSU added a fifth run in the fourth when two walks to Smith and Papierski followed by a Slaughter hit by pitch allowed a run to score on a Kramer Robertson fielder’s choice.
After Rice starter Addison Moss gave up four runs with just one of them earned on five hits and Evan Kravetz pitched an inning and allowed a run, Jackson Parthansarthy came in and cooled down the Tiger bats, only allowing a single hit in 5.2 innings of work and recording four clean inning.
“That kid that came in for the last five innings or so had something about him where his ball was really sneaky on our hitters,” Mainieri said. “We had a tough time getting around on him and yet he was only throwing 87 miles per hour.”
With Walker throwing a gem, LSU was more than happy to sit on five runs until Walker’s back to back hits allowed in the ninth inning. Zack Hess came in relief and issued a walk but struck out the rest of the side in overpowering fashion to clinch LSU’s 23rd Regional Championship and berth in the Super Regionals.