For Josh Smith and Eric Walker, It's Good to be Back
When he toes the mound on Friday for his first appearance in 20 months, Eric Walker will not think about the past.
He will not think about the injury or the surgery or the rehab or the pain – the literal pain in his elbow or, perhaps worse, the existential pain of missing so much time doing what he loves most and does best. He will not think about his last start, a two-inning outing in Game 2 of the 2017 College World Series cut short by a radiating fire in his elbow, the telltale sign of an injury that would require Tommy John surgery and cost him the entirety of the 2018 season.
Instead, LSU’s redshirt sophomore will focus only on the next start, the next hitter, the next pitch, the next task at hand, because that is what he’s done for 20 months of recovery, and it hasn’t failed him yet.
“For me, there were so many small milestones,” says Walker, who is set to take the ball against UL-Monroe on Friday in relief of Zack Hess – the same team he made his collegiate debut against two years ago. “I’d get my range of motion. Then I’d get to do ball tosses. Then I could throw 45 feet. Every phase gave me that added enthusiasm to keep going. It propelled me to continue the process.”
The irony, of course, is that Paul Mainieri thinks about the past almost every day. What if, he wonders, Walker never suffered that elbow injury against Oregon State? That question is the entry point into a rabbit hole full of more questions, dominos toppling over and over and over again in Mainieri’s mind.
Maybe LSU doesn’t lose 13-1 and drop into the loser’s bracket. Maybe, after LSU used every arm in its bullpen to win three games in four days and reach the finals, Walker – who Mainieri felt was pitching better than anyone on his roster by season’s end, a freshman All-American who finished the season with an 8-2 record, a 3.48 ERA, and a 1.02 ERA in the postseason – starts Game One of the College World Series Championship against Florida. Maybe LSU wins its seventh national championship, instead of falling in two games to the Gators.
“I contemplate it about every day, honestly,” Mainieri says. “So often, I think back to how different the Florida series could’ve been if Eric Walker could’ve started Game One. I can’t help but think it would’ve made a difference. I just felt like we were the better team, and if we would’ve had all our guns blazing that last series, it could’ve been different.”
But, now, it can’t be different, and so none of that will cross Walker’s mind on Sunday. He will be too busy putting heartbreak and radiating elbow fire and ball tosses and velocity restrictions away like hopeless hitters in an 0-2 count. He will paint corners and buckle knees, and with each throw, he will move one pitch further past the pain of his last trip to Omaha.
And, hopefully, one pitch closer to his return trip back.
That journey begins Friday for LSU and Walker. And for this journey, as for the one he just completed, he will not be alone.
Josh Smith hit .297 in LSU’s 2017 postseason run, earning Freshman All-American honors and a selection on the SEC’s All-Defensive Team” width=”1024″ height=”683″ caption=”false” data-mce-src=”/pics33/1024/MP/MPKPFNMRYFLZDEO.20190214172633.jpg”>
THE HARDEST PART was coming back. Perhaps the only thing worse than knowing you’ll miss an entire season of baseball is not knowing you’ll miss an entire season of baseball.
Josh Smith entered 2018 set to be one of college baseball’s best shortstops. Like Walker, he was fresh off a Freshman All-American campaign in 2017, hitting .281 with five home runs, 16 doubles, and 48 RBI as an SEC All-Defensive Team selection at third base. After hitting .382 in the Cape Cod League the following summer, Smith was in line to take the reins at shortstop and in the middle of the lineup for LSU in 2018.
But during opening weekend a year ago, Smith suffered a stress reaction in his vertebrae. He played just 16 innings the rest of the season, spending most of his time with Walker in rehab and waiting to get back to the field.
“It was pretty weird,” says Smith. “All the guys would go to the field, and me and Eric were just hanging out. We didn’t really have anything to do. But me and Eric got pretty tight and hung out a lot.”
They played Fortnite. They watched movies. They hit the books during the week, hit the training room after class, and watched games together when the Tigers hit the road.
“It was weird,” Walker says, echoing Smith’s assessment. “Both of us, we didn’t expect it, but we kind of found comfort in the fact that we were both doing it.”
They were, of course, on different timetables. Walker knew entering last season he wouldn’t see the field. Smith, however, initially received a four to six week diagnosis, and he worked tirelessly to get back on the field midway through the 2018 season.
But after making his return on April 24, belting a homer against Lamar and making two starts against Ole Miss the following weekend, his injury flared up again, and LSU shut him down for the season.
“That was the hardest part,” Smith says. “I built up everything to get back, finally got back, started playing two or three games, then felt it again. It set me back. That was tough.”
Smith admits those days after his failed comeback were the darkest, but he looked to Walker for inspiration. While Walker had more certainty because of the nature of his injury – Tommy John recovery is a far more exact science than back rehab – he also endured the difficulty of getting hurt on the sport’s biggest stage, so near to the finish line.
“For him, it was tough,” Smith says. “He was one of the biggest keys to our run in 2017, and went through it in Omaha, which is tough. He never got down on himself. He always kept a good head on his shoulders, and he worked really hard to get back to where he is now.”
The relationship was symbiotic. Walker also knew how to relate to Smith, having dealt with a season-ending diagnosis months before his roommate did. He knew when to encourage Smith and when to give him space.
“I just tried to tell him and be there for him,” Walker says. “But I didn’t want to talk to anyone when I had it, so I let him be. But I was there for him if he needed. If I saw him down, I’d try to pick him up.”
All the while, Walker watched his roommate attack his own recovery, encouraged by his tenacity. On days when rehab felt tedious, Walker needed only to look across his apartment to find motivation.
“I never saw a day where he wasn’t getting his work done to get back,” Walker says. “That’s the biggest thing – the work ethic it takes. It definitely kept me going.”
Now healthy, the two form what Maineri calls his “second recruiting class” for a 2019 season that begins Friday with the highest of expectations. The usual haul of freshmen and junior college pitchers LSU signed for the 2018 recruiting cycle ranked No. 1 in the country, according to Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, and D1Baseball. Meanwhile, the Tigers also bring back draft eligible stars Zack Hess, Zach Watson, and Antoine Duplantis, who shunned Major League dollars for another season in Baton Rouge.
But just as important to the Tigers’ hopes in 2019 are the simultaneous returns of Walker and Smith.
“That feels like its own recruiting class with those two guys,” says Mainieri.
ABSENCE NURTURES APPRECIATION. It’s why Mainieri – in addition to their Major League talent – practically beams when speaking about either Smith or Walker, both of whom will be among the mainstays of a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason by a number of outlets and with its eyes dead set on getting back to Omaha and coming back, this time, with a national title.
In Smith, Mainieri thinks he has a rare combination of defensive dynamism and offensive prowess, a slick-fielding, clutch-hitting heir to the great line of recent Tiger shortstops that includes the likes of Austin Nola, Alex Bregman, and Kramer Robertson.
“I think Josh is an ultra-talented kid,” Mainieri says. “I don’t think last fall, and even going into last spring, did we see the true ability as a shortstop because that back was bothering him more than he was leading on to me. He was just a little slow in his reactions and getting to the ball. Now that he’s 100 percent, his quickness is so much better.
“You hate to make comparisons, but it reminds me of the way Bregman played shortstop. He’s going to be one of our best hitters, and one of our best clutch hitters. I think Josh is going to have a big year. I think he’s really clutch.
“I think he may be one of the best all-around shortstops in the country.”
Smith says he feels 100 percent heading into the season opener. Three days a week, he completes the very same core workout – the Watkins Back Protocol – that he underwent during his rehab. It’s strengthened him, adding pop to his bat and fluidity to his fielding.
Smith went 4-for-4 in the Purple & Gold World Series in the fall, with a homer, a double, and two stolen bases, and he’s carried that production into the spring, going a combined 6-for-11 with two doubles and two steals in four recent February scrimmages.
“Once we got back to the fall, playing every day, it gave me confidence that my back was back to 100 percent,” Smith says.
Walker, meanwhile, offers Mainieri more than his strikeout numbers or ERA – great as they may be – are capable of indicating.
His qualitative, intangible assets might be even more important than the quantifiable, tangible talents he possesses in spades.
“Not having him last year had a big effect,” Mainieri says of Walker. “Eric’s value is not just measured in his velocity or his change-up or the quality of his curveball. This guy was an outstanding high school quarterback of one of the best high school football teams in the country in Arlington, Texas. More than anything, he was a leader. He was a field general.
“He brings that same poise, competitiveness, composure to the mound. He’s not going to overpower you, but the way he pitches and his ability to raise his game in critical situations is what allows him to be successful. He’s the consummate pitcher.”
For Walker, the biggest benefit of a year off was the chance to rest and reset. He’d been playing competitive sports nonstop since he was nine years old, so the rehab process offered an opportunity to approach baseball from a new perspective.
“The biggest thing is taking a step back,” Walker says. “Your whole life, you’re playing it, going full speed. You don’t get a time to truly think, analyze the game from an outsider’s perspective. I got to see what other people do, talk to people, fine tune my game, just literally watching baseball. It’s different when you know you’re not playing it. From a mental side, I got some benefit from it.”
It’s been long enough, though. The step back was beneficial, but Walker’s next step is forward. Back to the hill. Ball in hand. One pitch at a time. No time for the past. Only looking to the future.
And, in his return as it was in his recovery, his roommate along for the journey.
“I wish neither of us would’ve had to go through it,” says Smith, “but to have one of your best friends there for you, it definitely made it a little easier on both of us.”