BATON ROUGE, La. — With all due respect to Danny Etling and Justin McMillan, the real quarterback competition at LSU might be in Alex Box Stadium.
Senior shortstop Kramer Robertson, freshman starting pitcher Eric Walker and freshman relief pitcher Matthew Beck, a trio of LSU’s most talented and reliable baseball players, were all standout high school football players who ultimately abandoned the gridiron for the diamond. Though all three were more passionate about baseball, their success on the football field can’t be ignored.
Robertson led Midway High School to a Texas state championship. Walker was a three-year starter at Arlington Martin High School, a perennial contender in Texas’ most competitive classification. And Beck was a natural, parlaying his success at Alexandria High School in Louisiana into opportunities to play as a preferred walk-on at SEC schools like Mississippi State and Arkansas.
If you think this isn’t what drew LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri to these players, you’re mistaken.
“I’ve never made any secret about how enamored I am with multi-sport athletes, especially quarterbacks in football,” Mainieri said. “That quarterback, nothing happens until he gets the ball in his hands. You have to assume that they have poise, composure, can handle the pressure, that they’re intelligent, that they’re leaders.”
Midway through his final season at LSU, Robertson has been exhibiting that poise and leadership for nearly four seasons already. But Mainieri said he can already see it from Walker and Beck, especially with how they work in high-pressure situations.
For Walker, coming in as a weekend starter from the first day he stepped foot on campus as a freshman just about proved that. But Beck had a little bit more to show, and 11 appearances into his college career, he has done just that.
Always the LSU fan, sometimes the superstar
Matthew Beck vividly remembers the last game ever played at the old Alex Box Stadium. It was the third game of the 2008 NCAA Super Regional versus UC Irvine. Beck was sitting in the left field bleachers and sat awestruck as home run after home run sailed over his head and out of the stadium.
LSU won 21-7, a football score suited for a future quarterback. As a kid who claims he can’t remember a time before he had a baseball in his hand, LSU baseball was Beck’s everything growing up.
“This is where I’ve always wanted to be,” he said. “My roots here run a little deeper than most.”
Now, Beck’s roots are staunchly set in the ground beneath him. 11 appearances into his college career, Beck has thrown 13 innings, posting an impressive 0.69 ERA with just three hits allowed compared to nine strikeouts. The freshman has developed into LSU’s most reliable middle-inning reliever, as he’s the only player LSU has who’s thrown more than 10 innings and has both an ERA and a batting average against below 1.00.
Mainieri attributes Beck’s success to a confluence of three factors. First, Beck pounds the strike zone. He’s only walked four batters so far this season, and he’s hit another two. The only LSU pitcher who has walked fewer batters than Beck this season with as many innings pitched is late-inning specialist Caleb Gilbert.
Second, Beck has a deceptive delivery. Mainieri joked that Beck’s herky-jerk motion prevents him from throwing 95 mph, which is the reason he isn’t in the minor leagues counting his money right now, but it also forces batters off balance, which is how he’s kept opponents out of the home run column all season despite flooding the zone with strikes.
But above all else, Beck doesn’t get intimidated. And that’s where Mainieri sees the ol’ gunslinger in his 6-foot-7 freshman.
“He’s fearless,” Mainieri said. “He’s a very poised kid. He was a really good high school quarterback. Those kinds of kids, they’re used to having the ball in their hands and all the pressure on them. They just don’t get flustered. I could see that in Matthew Beck. I’m not surprised at all by the success he’s having.”
Working for the success
Beck’s development at LSU came with a couple of tweaks. Namely, he had to reinvent his breaking ball.
Before arriving at LSU, Beck threw a conventional curveball, one that he had trouble getting bite out of. Last fall, he sought to rectify that and taught himself how to throw a “spike curve,” or a modified knuckle curve that has a 12-6 bend on it, starting out in a batter’s eyes and spiking into the dirt, hence the name.
That slight tweak has helped turn Beck into one of LSU’s most dominant pitchers, despite lacking the top-flight velocity you’d expect from a 6-foot-7 right-handed pitcher.
Walker, on the other hand, hasn’t needed much tweaking.
“We felt all along that Eric was the consummate pitcher,” Mainieri said. “He knew what he was doing out there. We knew he could compete because his command was so good. Now, he doesn’t have overpowering stuff. But when he’s mixing his pitches well, he can be pretty tough.”
Seven starts into his college career, Walker has already shed the flustered freshman moniker, posting a 3.03 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 38 innings pitched. LSU is 5-2 in games Walker has started, and the two losses came when relief pitchers gave up runs in the ninth inning, preserving Walker’s undefeated record.
Still, his success comes with a hitch. As a result of Walker also loving to pound the strike zone, the freshman Texan allows a high rate of fly balls and home runs. About 16 percent of the hits he’s allowed this season have been long balls, with his five home runs allowed all coming in his first six starts.
Walker said he isn’t trying to allow fly balls. He’s just pitching the game plan pitching coach Alan Dunn lays out for him, and sometimes mistakes happen. But Mainieri sees a little deeper into Walker’s flaw and finds acceptance in it.
“Every so often, somebody’s going to run into one and he’ll give up a home run every once in a while,” Mainieri said. “That comes with the territory. Some of the greatest control pitchers in Major League Baseball history – Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, those kinds of guys – always gave up the most home runs. That’s what happens when you throw the ball over the plate.”
For reference, Hunter allowed 374 home runs in his MLB career, the 20th most in big-league history. Jenkins offered up 484 bombs, the third most of any pitcher ever. Both are also Cy Young winners and Hall of Famers.
That’s not to say Eric Walker is Catfish Hunter or Fergie Jenkins. But that’s what Mainieri sees when Walker toes the rubber. Well, that and a true competitor.
Good thing he didn’t quit his day job
When Mainieri was recruiting Walker, the pitcher remembers, Mainieri liked to tell a story of a two-sport athlete he once recruited who couldn’t juggle the demands of playing two sports at once.
“He’d always tell a story about how he had a guy that he recruited and then he ended up quitting his second sport and [Mainieri] ended up not recruiting him anymore,” Walker said. “I think he just likes people who compete in all facets of every game and have a competitive mindset in general.”
That’s where Walker’s football background benefits him most on the mound. Walker is realistic. At barely 6-feet tall, he was never going to play major college football. You have to be Drew Brees or Russell Wilson kind of good to succeed at quarterback at that height.
But the mentality? The inner bulldog that wants the ball in his hands every play? Walker hasn’t shed that.
“Just the competitiveness,” Walker said. “Every down having to touch the ball and as a pitcher every pitch matters. I think it’s just that correlation of just kind of having to stay within the game and stay focused.”
Walker said he’d be lying if he said he doesn’t miss football. Beck is the same way. Walker is content to just watch football as a fan now, but Beck admitted he’s the kind of guy who might end up reliving his Friday night glory days with the odd story here or there. Like the time he threw for 540 yards against Ruston High School as a senior. Or, in Walker’s case, the time he played in front of 30,000 fans versus 5-star, No. 1 QB recruit in the nation Kyler Murray and Allen High School.
But none of this solves the question of who would be the starting quarterback on the LSU baseball team. Robertson said he tends to think it’s either himself or Walker; football’s just a little different in Texas. Walker felt the same way, deferring to Robertson’s state title as a tiebreaker for the senior.
But Beck is willing to defend himself, and Louisiana, for the crown.
“One of our things in the fall was coach asked who was a better quarterback, me or Eric,” Beck said. “Eric said himself, I said myself. We always joke back and forth about it.”
Paging Matt Canada. Looks like there’s a new competition in town in need of your deliberation.