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Surpassing Expectations

Every year, South Carolina recruits some of the best players in the country. The classes are consistently ranked amongst the best in America and high expectations go along with every player.

Junior Christian Walker has a .344 career average with 19 hone runs in his first two seasons at South Carolina.

The amount of players to come in with All-American accolades, big fastballs, power bats, and world class speed are numerous, but head coach Ray Tanner often tries to temper expectations.

But not all the time.

From the second ballyhooed freshman Christian Walker stepped onto campus, spurning a late round selection by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tanner spoke of Walker with that little twinkle in his eye.

He spoke because he knew what very others did. Walker had a chance to be special.

“In the fall and in the preseason, no one was as good as he was — no one,'” Tanner said before Walker ever played a game. “And I'm talking about some of the guys who are in the big leagues right now. I've just never had a hitter be that consistent.”

Tanner told reporters that Walker had a chance to be one of the best hitters he’s ever coached, and he showed why in the fall. He hit for the highest average on the team, which included players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Whit Merrifield. He hit for both power and average, launching home runs into the bleachers in left and lining doubles to the gap in right center.

Walker quickly showed why Tanner spoke with that twinkle in his eye.

“I think early on, when he got into this program, it was easy to recognize his hand-eye coordinator was a lot better than most players,” Tanner said. “A lot of players are successful, but very few can reach the level of hand-eye coordinator that he has. He can hit the ball out of the park or the other way. He doesn’t swing-and-miss that much, and it’s impressive.”

Walker has endeared himself to the Gamecock faithful, thanks in large part to his clutch hitting ability.

Even though Tanner could see the ability, words carry weight. Walker heard what his new head coach was saying, but it didn’t faze him. In fact, he embraced the praise that Tanner bestowed.

“It wasn’t added pressure at all,” Walker said. “I’ve had pressure my whole life. I’m glad he looked at me highly like that. It gives me good expectations to shoot for and good goals to strive for. I enjoy the pressure.”

Embracing pressure is one thing, but living up to the hype is more difficult. Tanner has former players in the pros. He’s had guys make millions of dollars and break records. Walker, Tanner believed, could be right there with those guys.

Walker was on board. He knew he could be one of the best hitters Tanner has ever coached.

“I believed it was true,” Walker said.

His first weekend in a South Carolina uniform, Walker made Tanner look brilliant. The right-handed slugger was 8-for-14 with a pair of home runs, a double, five runs scored and seven RBIs.

There were some lean moments in the middle of the season when Walker struggled to get on base. He wasn’t striking out, though, but a few skeptics wanted to see Nick Ebert back in the lineup. Tanner had none of that and Walker’s average began to climb again against Ole Miss.

He finished the season as the team’s third-leading hitter with a .327 average and nine home runs. The biggest of those nine came in Myrtle Beach in the Super Regional against Coastal Carolina. The blast, which traveled out of the stadium, helped propel the Gamecocks to the College World Series and eventually the first of two national titles.

Scouts want to see more power from Walker this season, but he and head coach Ray Tanner believe the hitting approach will stay the same.

“He’s unbelievable with what he can do with the bat,” junior Matt Price said. “He can hit a bomb to the left center gap or then a line drive double to right. He’s a complete hitter and he’s always tough to get out.”

Walker, with a national championship ring on his finger, focused his summer before his sophomore season on his conditioning. He wanted to tone his body and become stronger. His diligent work in the weight room paid off and instead of a mid-season slump, the every day first baseman was consistent from game one through game 69.

When team leaders and key cogs in the order were injured, Walker was right there in the middle of the order. He hit and did so every game. By season’s end, he was the leader in all three Triple Crown categories, but that doesn’t tell the whole story in how he got there.

For the second straight season, Walker delivered a big-time blast to help his team to Omaha. His home run against Connecticut in the Super Regional was the deciding factor in the game.

Walker was becoming known as a clutch performer, delivering the big hits at the right time. He was 10-for-11 in a series win at Mississippi State, he had game-winning hits in two games against Tennessee. He had two home runs against Clemson and another clutch RBI single against the rival.

His reputation was well-known in college baseball, and that was before the College World Series last season.

“It was intimidating in a sense because you know what he’s done here and what he’s capable of,” freshman Evan Beal said of facing Walker for the first time. “You have to try to forget about that when you’re facing him. He’s a great player, he can hit everywhere, and can hit for power.”

Walker was a great player before the championship series against Florida, but he added to his legend over that two-game stretch.

In his final at-bat against Virginia which sealed the best-of-three showdown against the Gators, Walker broke his hamate. It’s an injury common amongst baseball players who hit with their bottom hand over the bottom knob of the bat. It requires surgery and produces intense pain on any swing.

Word was kept quiet on the injury at first, but we knew something was up watching Walker have his hand wrapped before batting practice the day before the series was to start. He took a couple of swings, then sat in the dugout teary-eyed.

He knew that he had little chance to play for his second ring.

Game day came and he got off the bus without his bat bag and it didn’t seem like he was going to play. He didn’t take batting practice on the field with the rest of his team, but disappeared into the tunnel to get his hand wrapped and he took a few swings in the indoor cages.

He was going to give it a go.

“I still can’t fathom how he did that,” Tanner said. “I said, ‘He can’t play. I don’t know how you can play.’ That will go down in my coaching career as one of the things that stands out in my mind. The fact that he played in Omaha is hard for me to comprehend.”

Not only did he play, he played well. He stayed in the three-hole in the batting order, a spot he held much of the season, and had a pair of multi-hit games. He was 4-for-9 with a run scored, a walk, a double, and even a stolen base.

Booked by everyone from big corporations to small Gamecock Clubs to speak, Tanner relived those moments in Omaha. It was a source of inspiration for the team for Walker to shelve all the pain coursing through his body to play in that series.

“You’re talking about a very, very special player with a bright future, but he has this incredible story to go with it,” Tanner said. “You talk about the intangibles and what kind of influence that has on your team that night and the inspiration. It’s remarkable to me.”

Because of the injury, Walker had to have surgery and forfeit the opportunity to play for Team USA over the summer. It was OK, though, because he had a second ring for his finger.

Again, he dedicated himself to rehab and conditioning in an effort to improve from his sophomore to junior season.

“Defensively, there’s always room for improvement,” Walker said. “Everything from range to being a confident player out there. Offensively, I’d like to hit a few more home runs. At the same time, I’ll take the .350 batting average and the home runs.”

This is a big season for Walker. He’s proven himself in the minds of the South Carolina faithful, but he still has some work to do with the scouts. He is an elite hitter that can spray the ball all over the yard and he won’t strike out.

He is, however, a 6-foot, 220-pound first basemen. Scour the major league rosters and you won’t find many first basemen that size. The position has always been reserved for big frames with big power.

Walker knows that scouts want to see more power from him this year. He said he’s not disappointed in his home run total from last year, 10, and even though he hit a power slump, his average remained high.

Tanner says that the home runs will come. Walker believes they will, too. He’s not focused on trying to hit them, but rather just staying the same kind of hitter he’s always been.

“I’m not a one-dimensional hitter. I don’t want to be labeled a pull guy or a home run guy. I can hit a double in the gap and get things rolling,” Walker said. “From what I’ve heard, scouts want to see a few more home runs. At the same time, everyone says I have a pretty good approach at the plate, so I don’t have to change too much.”

Tanner will give a glowing endorsement to the scouting world, and so would his teammates.

“He’s a tough out. Every pitch, you have to make,” Price, who was drafted in in the 6th round by Arizona last year, said. “You can’t let up for one pitch. If you mess up on one pitch, he’s going to make you pay for it. He’s one of the toughest hitters ever.”

Strong words from Price, who has faced a lot of good hitters in his day.

After just two seasons, Tanner said that Walker would rank in the “top three or four” hitters he’s ever coached.

Standing on the field Thursday afternoon just 24 hours before the first pitch against VMI, the 16th-year head man had that same twinkle in his eye he had two years ago when talking about Walker.

He had high praise for Walker before the Limerick, Pa. native ever swung a bat in a Gamecock uniform. Tanner can spot talent; he can see it early. He saw it in Walker, who hasn’t disappointed.

“He’s a special hitter,” Tanner said. “He’s lived up to everything that we thought he would and more. He’s also been a clutch-time performer. He’s had a couple of big at-bats along the way.”

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