Gamecocks Christian Walker Has Heavy Mettle
Four years ago, Justin Smoak was one of the most widely sought-after players in college baseball. The South Carolina first baseman finished his junior season as the school's all-time leader in home runs and RBIs, drawing comparisons to Mark Teixeira, among others. The Rangers drafted Smoak 11th overall in 2008, and many were surprised that he fell that far. Amid the hype and seven-figure contract talks, one number lay beneath it all: zero. As in, zero College World Series appearances for South Carolina during Smoak's time with the team.
Fast forward to 2012 and another Gamecock first baseman is putting up big numbers, and doing it with far less hype.
South Carolina first baseman Christian Walker has consistently produced since he arrived in Columbia in 2010. As head coach Ray Tanner explains, that consistency results from Walker's approach at the plate.
"He probably could hit a few more home runs if he would take a different approach," Tanner said, "but he hasn't done that. He'll just take what he can get and try to hit the ball hard."
The 6-foot, 220-pound junior from Limerick, Pa., was batting .335/.462/.559 this season with 10 home runs and 49 RBIs entering the Southeastern Conference tournament. He hit .327 and .358 in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and batted .588 as a senior at Kennedy-Kenrick High in 2009. Asked what his greatest strength is, Walker doesn't hesitate: "Definitely my offense. I've always been a pretty patient hitter, and I pride myself on my discipline at the plate."
As a freshman in 2010, Walker provided a game-winning home run in the NCAA Super Regional to send South Carolina to Omaha. In the CWS finals against UCLA, Walker had four hits in two games en route to a national title and the CWS all-tournament team.
"He was one of those guys when we recruited him whose reputation was that he's going to hit, and he really has done that for us since day one," Tanner said. "Not only has he hit for numbers, but he's hit in the clutch."
Walker did it again in 2011, breaking a 2-2 tie with a solo home run in South Carolina's Super Regional opener against Connecticut. Battling through a broken hamate bone suffered before the championship series, Walker pounded out four hits in South Carolina's series against Florida. The result was the same as 2010: a national title and another appearance on the CWS all-tournament team.
As they head into postseason play, this year's Gamecocks team has a noticeably younger cast of characters. After starting conference play with five losses in six games, Tanner emphasizes the role that the upperclassmen played.
"I tip my hat to the veteran guys on our team that kind of kept the young guys poised and confident as we struggled early," Tanner said. "Our older players , Walker and (Adam) Matthews and (Michael) Roth and (Evan) Marzilli said, 'Hang in there, we were freshmen one time too.'"
The team's resilience paid off as it entered the SEC tournament as the No. 2 seed. Walker's advice as a team leader is simple.
"Just keep it relaxed, keep it calm," Walker said. "Obviously now is when you want to play your best baseball. But it's just another tournament, just another game."
With two national titles under his belt, Walker has an idea of what it takes to be successful in the postseason. "Just competing every single opportunity that we're given," Walker said. "Everybody wants to win and everybody wants to get to Omaha. But we're going to take it a step further and definitely try to get to Omaha and after that try to win everything."
Walker's college success has not made him a favorite with scouts; as a righthanded-hitting first baseman with good but not great power, he doesn't fit the pro profile perfectly. But with continued success on the national stage, Tanner expectations are as high for Walker as they've been for anyone.
"What impresses me the most is that he just keeps getting better," Tanner said. "He just continues to figure out what he's doing offensively."