OMAHA, Nebraska - LSU freshman pitcher Eric Walker has not been this keyed up since Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, played DeSoto High on ESPN in his junior year in 2014.
Walker was a three-year starter at quarterback for Martin, frequently playing in front of 25,000 or so, which is how many are expected at TD Ameritrade Monday when the No. 4 seeded Tigers (49-17) play No. 1 seed Oregon State (55-4) in the first winner's bracket game of the College World Series at 6 p.m. ... also on ESPN.
"I'm excited, a little bit anxious," Walker said before practice Sunday afternoon at Bellevue East High School in Omaha. "When we played DeSoto on ESPN, I had the same feeling - anxiousness."
His high school team lost that night, 55-30, but he was the better for it.
"You learn from the situations," he said. "You have to approach it with the mindset of not being afraid to fail."
Walker (8-1, 3.46 ERA) cannot be fearful Monday night. Oregon State won its 22nd consecutive game on Saturday afternoon at the College World Series, 6-5, after trailing 3-0 in the first and 5-1 after five. The Beavers have not lost a game since April 29, and that took 10 innings as USC won, 7-5. LSU, by the way, has won 17 in a row, not losing since May 9 - 7-6 to South Alabama.
"Something's got to give," Walker said.
One of the reasons LSU coach Paul Mainieri recruited and signed Walker was the toughness he showed on the football field. He didn't give in.
"He's just so inordinate for a freshman," he said. "It's big time high school football in Texas. He played in front of 20,000 people on a regular basis. He was a field general. He was a cool customer. He was their leader, and he has exemplified that kind of poise and composure from the day he walked onto our campus. Now you add to that his pinpoint control, his ability to throw three different pitches for strikes, the competitive zeal. He's had an outstanding year for us. He won't be overwhelmed. If he doesn't pitch well, it will only be because Oregon State got to him."
All the Beavers can do is hit his pitches. They won't be trying to sack him, which is what Martin High defensive end Myles Garrett tried to do in practice when Walker won the starting quarterback job as a sophomore. Garrett was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft last April out of Texas A&M by Cleveland.
"You have Myles Garrett chasing you," Walker said. "You have defensive backs with closing speed like no other. You play in front of crowds like no other, except for Alex Box. You're covered by every media outlet like here at LSU. I loved high school football. It prepared me for this."
Mainieri just last week elevated Walker to his No. 2 starter behind ace Alex Lange and ahead of senior left-hander Jared Poche, who has been moved to bullpen and spot starting. Poche (11-3, 3.33 ERA) got the win in relief of Lange Saturday night when the Tigers advanced with a 5-4 win over Florida State after trailing 2-0 in the first, 3-1 in the third and 4-3 in the eighth..
"Jared had been struggling. Walker's been pitching great," Mainieri said. "I would anticipate that he's going to go out there and compete very favorably."
Walker and Martin High came back the next year to beat DeSoto in his senior season in 2015 by a 46-26 score as Walker hit 11 of 17 passes for 158 yards.
"I don't ever think anything is too big," he said.
But this is a big one. Oregon State has been ranked No. 1 most of the season, while LSU has been on a roll of late. There are 39 consecutive wins between the two teams, and the winner will have three days off before playing on Friday for the right to reach the national championship best-of-three series beginning on Monday. The game pairs the 2006 and '07 national champions, Oregon State, against the 2009 national champions, LSU.
"My dad (Dean Walker) always told me to be the best, you've got to beat the best," Walker said on Father's Day.
"It's going to be a great match-up," Mainieri said. "We get to play Oregon State - the number one team in the country, deservedly so. How many games have they won in a row?"
He was told 22.
"Twenty-two in a row. Something's gotta give," he said. "I promise you, we're not going to tie. So, we'll see. I would like to see you all show up for that game if you're not doing anything on Monday night. It might be a lot of fun."
Mainieri took a more sarcastic look at Oregon State's gaudy record.
"They lost four games, so they're beatable, right," he laughed. "So you're saying, we have a chance?
Oregon State coach Pat Casey said he would start sophomore right-hander Bryce Fehmel (5-2, 3.80 ERA), and Mainieri kept pitching sarcasm.
"He's having a rough year," he cracked. "He's got half their losses."
And one more than Walker, who will live out a boyhood dream Monday night. He went to the College World Series in 2010 as an 11-year old.
"Pitching in the College World Series is something that I always dreamed of," he said. "I went to Rosenblatt in sixth or seventh grade with my brother to watch TCU. It was pretty crazy. It's a great environment, and it's something you only dream of as a kid coming here. And it's kind of surreal."
Walker said the forearm soreness he suffered after pitching in a simulated game against teammates on Tuesday is no longer.
"I'm 100 percent," he said. "Why wouldn't you want to pitch in this game?"
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