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The Kids Are Alright

LSU’s freshman are helping carry the water down the stretch.

Steve Franz / LSU Athletics

Sunday night Eric Walker threw the best game of his college career against Rice, going eight innings of scoreless ball, allowing just seven hits and striking out eight while walking none. He never even entered a three ball count.

It was the best game of his career and he threw it in the closeout game of the Baton Rouge Regional. Behind his arm, LSU advanced to a super regional.

Of course the pool of Eric Walker games is pretty small because, you know, he’s a freshman.

But you’d never know that by watching him pitch.

“His maturity is through the roof,” his catcher Michael Papierski said after the game Sunday. “I can’t give him enough credit for how he keeps his composure. If he misses a spot and a guy hits a double, it’s like he struck a dude out. He just goes out there, takes a deep breath and moves on to the next guy.”

I don’t need to bring up LSU’s shortcomings in finding a third starter in recent seasons, but I will remind you that LSU just needed a serviceable pitcher to fill the role. Walker has been so much more than serviceable, he’s been borderline great for a freshman: 3.46 ERA in 93.2 innings pitched, allowing 37 runs on 81 hits with 36 of them being earned, with a K/BB of 3.40 (78/23) and opponents batting average of .232. In the past three weeks he has pitched the Tigers to three championships.

And he isn’t the only one.

Josh Smith has been the starter at third base since opening day and has thrived defensively, cleanly fielding the hot corner while batting .290. By the time it’s all said and done, the Greenwell Springs product may have a claim as the best defensive player at LSU of all time if he continues to improve on his already nearly spotless fielding.

Zach Watson is another plus defensive player in centerfield and is playing out of his mind down the stretch, hitting four home runs in the regional and pushing his average up above .300 after having one of the best weeks in the field the Hoover Met has ever seen.

Zack Hess has emerged as one of LSU’s most reliable bullpen arms, right up there with Hunter Newman, with his overpowering pitches from his large frame, striking out 71 batters in 52.1 innings of work. He closed the door on Rice with the bases loaded to complete LSU’s regional championship.

Even the much-embattled Jake Slaughter is a solid defender who is batting .258 and filled in for Nick Coomes in LSU’s final two games of the weekend, delivering two RBI, one of which was nearly the difference in the regional closeout game.

Coming into the season much of the attention was focused on the “Fab Four”, the four seniors who spurned major league offers to return to Baton Rouge to lead the team. That quartet made up Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman, Greg Deichmann, and Jared Poché have been great and have indeed led the team both emotionally and on the stats page, but it’s the freshman that have made this team so great and the Tigers’ current 14 game win streak is a byproduct of both sides running cleanly.

“Since day one I have played next to Josh and I’ve been taking grounders with him since he stepped on campus,” Kramer Robertson said about Josh Smith. “He was always there and very poised for a freshman. It really stuck out to me. The moment never gets too big for him. He's very calm. I guess you never really know until they step on the field. But he's done that. He's gotten better and more calm as the year has gone on.”

Robertson echoes that sentiment for the Tigers’ newly minted third starter.

“For Eric, I had no doubts in him,” Robertson said. “He has that poise, he can go out and do that. He's really competitive, and he's focused. (He’s) absolutely right, he seems to do better when the moment is bigger. He's been a winning pitcher in two championships now. Every time he steps on the mound, I have confidence in him.”

“When we recruited Eric, we saw something special,” his head coach Paul Mainieri said. “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.”

These players are not projects. They are not developing prospects for the 2019 or 2020 team ala Kramer Robertson. They are not even just placeholders filling a hole in a position. They are direct contributors on the team and the rest of LSU’s season is dependent upon how they fare as much as it is about the veterans. LSU is entering the part of the season where any hole in your lineup or in your rotation can mean the end of the season and while it’s nice to have veterans step up and take the blame for shortcomings, it doesn’t work much for the baseball gods.

Which is a good thing, because even the emotional heartbeat of the team Kramer Robertson admits that the freshman nucleus have transcended their classification status.

“These guys aren't freshmen anymore. They're veterans now.”