HOOVER, Ala. — After LSU clinched a spot in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Saturday, a group of its players were asked about giving the ball to freshman Eric Walker in the title game.
The question went something along the lines of how LSU rode “stud” pitchers Alex Lange and Jared Poché to get to the title game, then turned it over to the youngster when it came down to winning the whole thing.
Almost before the question was finished, Poché leaned forward and said of Walker into the microphone, “He’s a stud, too.”
Poché proved prophetic.
Walker exited his championship start to a standing ovation, leaving the field with a 4-1 lead after carving up a dangerous Arkansas lineup for 7.2 innings.
Four Arkansas outs later, he was one of a sea of gold jerseys celebrating a 4-2 win — the school’s 12th SEC tournament championship and sixth under coach Paul Mainieri — with a dog pile on the pitching mound.
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“Hopefully not the last dog pile of the year, but it feels good to get one out of the way,” senior shortstop Kramer Robertson siad.
Those last four outs certainly did not come easy.
The first batter to see something other than a Walker pitch drilled a double that would’ve left the park had it not been for a leaping Greg Deichmann reaching over the fence to knock it back in.
Things got especially hairy in the ninth with closer Hunter Newman on the mound.
“Sometimes Hunter makes it interesting,” Mainieri said.
A walk and a hit by pitch brought the top of the order up with two outs. Eric Cole, who had provided Arkansas’ only run of the day against Walker, drilled an RBI single to make it 4-2, and making matters worse, the guy behind him was on some kind of streak.
Arkansas’ Chad Spanberger, named tournament MVP shortly after the conclusion of the game, had hit five home runs in his previous two games. Though he’d gone hitless against LSU, Mainieri wanted no part in pitching to him.
Mainieri intentionally walked the slugger to load the bases — putting the tying run in scoring position.
“Not only does the kid have a lot of talent, but he’s extremely hot,” Mainieri said. “The ball must look like a beachball coming in there to him. I just thought to myself, ‘He’s in scoring position standing at home plate.’
“I took my chances. What would you rather do? Lose to Spanberger on one swing of the bat? Let him tie the game with a ball in the gap? Or just put the hitter on, move runners into scoring position and trust your pitcher against a right-handed batter.”
The move paid off. The ensuing batter, designated hitter Luke Bonfield, bounced a chopper to Robertson, who fired to third base for the title-clinching force out.
“At that point you’re just hoping you throw strikes,” Newman said. “Just pound the zone and let your defense work.”
Newman preserved a win Walker earned.
When Mainieri came out to lift Walker (7-1) in favor of left-hander Nick Bush with two outs in the eighth inning, the LSU infield huddled around the mound and took turns hugging Walker after a job well done.
Walker allowed just five hits in 7.2 innings, striking out eight. After allowing a home run to lead off the third inning, Walker did not allow any of the next 20 batters to advance past second base.
The freshman right-hander has given up just one run in 16.2 innings against Arkansas. He fired a two-hit shutout against the Hogs in Fayetteville earlier this season.
Walker appeared to have pinpoint command of his entire arsenal Sunday, striking out eight against just one walk. Of Walker’s 116 pitches, 78 went for strikes.
“It was a mixture of all three pitches,” Walker said, referring to his fastball, changeup and curveball. “… I was able to locate on both sides with the fastball and keep them off-balance.”
Cole Freeman knew the freshman had something good going when he saw his approach to Spanberger in the first inning.
Walker got out ahead 0-2, and after wasting a pitch on the outside of the plate, came right back in on the big left-hander’s hands.
Spanberger failed to turn on the pitch, which he weakly grounded to first base.
“For a freshman to come inside on a guy who has five home runs in his last three games, knowing that if he misses a couple inches out over the plate it could be a home run, that was the moment I was like, ‘He’s got his stuff today,’ ” Freeman said.
LSU officially learned Sunday night it had secured its status as a regional host and will likely be named a national seed for the NCAA tournament, which starts later this week, at 11 a.m. Monday.