As has frequently been the case during this increasingly impressive late-season surge, the LSU baseball team turned in a complete performance in Sunday's Baton Rouge regional championship game.
Each part of the lineup contributed to some early runs that backed up a dominant effort for a starting pitcher whose defense played sometimes brilliant error-free ball behind him.
That equation proved to be a winning one again. The Tigers won their 14th consecutive game late Sunday night, completing a sweep through their own regional with a 5-0 win against Rice at Alex Box Stadium.
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LSU (46-17) will host Mississippi State or Southern Miss next week in a best-of-three super regional. The Bulldogs and Golden Eagles meet Monday in the Hattiesburg regional championship round; State needs two wins to reach Baton Rouge.
For the second straight week, freshman right-hander Eric Walker (8-1) was magnificent as LSU played for a championship.
“He basically put the team on his back,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
A high school quarterback, Eric Walker spent part of his prep career being chased around at practice by a hulking defensive end.
A week after stifling a potent Arkansas lineup in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game for 7.2 innings, Walker shut out Rice for eight innings Sunday.
“Pitching for a championship really fires me up,” Walker said.
LSU sent Walker to the mound in the ninth inning but pulled him after he gave up a pair of singles. Zack Hess loaded the bases with a one-out walk but struck out the other three batters with electric stuff to preserve the shutout.
“I think we have a couple of handy young freshman in Walker and Hess that are going to be really good for LSU baseball going forward,” Mainieri said.
The contrast between the freshmen was striking. The demonstrative Hess was all velocity and intimidation, his violent delivery whipping mid-90s fastballs and knee-buckling sliders toward the plate. Walker was his antithesis, composed and almost unassuming, but just as dominant. Hess is the brawler; Walker is the tactician.
Walker is at his best when he’s able to command all three of his pitches, and that was the case Sunday. He threw 77 of his 98 pitches for strikes, and no Rice batter worked a three-ball count out of the freshman.
He retired 14 of the first 15 batters he faced and, as he did so, his lineup gave him a lead he would never come close to giving up.
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Rice, playing in its second game of the day and fourth of the tournament after ousting Southeastern Louisiana in an elimination game Sunday afternoon, was short on pitching.
Freshman right-hander Addison Moss made his first career start Sunday, and LSU made sure he did not get out of the third inning.
“We wanted to come out and set the tone early,” senior shortstop Kramer Robertson said.
The bottom half of the LSU order scored three runs against Moss in the second inning with the help of an error to lead off by Rice third baseman Dane Myers.
That error came back to hurt the Owls: Josh Smith yanked a hanging breaking ball down the right-field line to give LSU the lead. A squeeze bunt by No. 8 hitter Michael Papierski and an RBI single by No. 9 hitter Jake Slaughter capped a three-run inning.
The top of the order chased Moss from the game in the top of the next inning. Robertson hit a leadoff double down the left-field line, moved to third base on Cole Freeman’s bunt single and scored on Antoine Duplantis’ sacrifice fly to make it 4-0.
A common refrain for this LSU baseball team is it goes as its senior shortstop Kramer Robert…
With his squad in the strange role of visitor in its home ballpark — LSU batted first each inning — Mainieri said the fast start was crucial Sunday.
“I thought it was really important tonight,” Mainieri said. “Each team gets 27 outs, it shouldn’t matter, but sometimes it feels like it does when you’re the visiting team and you let the other team get out ahead of you early.”
LSU wasn’t able to sustain its quick start. Rice reliever Jackson Parthasarthy steadied the game for the Owls, entering with one out in the fourth inning and retiring 17 of the 19 batters he faced.
But it was too late to matter. Handing a five-run lead to Walker, LSU cruised to the finish and advanced to the next round of the NCAA tournament.
“I was getting a little bit nervous that it wasn’t enough, but Eric just pitched so magnificently it turned out to be plenty,” Mainieri said.
LSU went into the regional tournament with a five-win countdown — three to win the regional tournament, two to win the super regional and punch a ticket to Omaha. Mainieri had no problem with his fractions after the game.
“We’re three-fifths of the way there, and I think you’re going to see a team come out next weekend that’s going to play nice and loose, aggressive and confident," he said. "Hopefully, we’ll have some success next weekend and be able to go on to Omaha after that.”
Photos: LSU shuts out Rice with 5-0 win behind starter Eric Walker
LSU shuts out Rice with a 5-0 win, Sunday, June 4, 2017, at LSU's Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. The Tigers advance to and will host the NCAA Super Regionals against either Southern Mississippi or Mississippi State.