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June 16, 2013Slightly more than 20 years ago, Todd Walker stepped foot on the LSU campus and promptly had a huge impact on the baseball program.
Walker was named the National Freshman of the Year as he became the first Tigers player to bat .400 for a season. Walker totaled 100 hits, including 21 doubles, three triples and 12 home runs. Walker, who stole 18 bases, scored 72 runs and drove in 76 runs.
Walker went on to have a 12-year major league career. He is one of four LSU representatives in the College Baseball Hall of Fame. The one negative aspect of Walker's freshman season with the Tigers was the fact that they lost in the regional and didn't advance to the College World Series.
LSU is getting ready for its 16th College World Series appearance. The Tigers will be taking on UCLA in a first-round game Sunday night. Another freshman is at the heart of LSU's success. Shortstop Alex Bregman has been chosen the National Freshman of the Year, like Walker 21 years earlier.
Bregman has bettered Walker in just two offensive categories - 104 hits and seven triples. Realize that Bregman is playing in an era in which the bats are not as lively. Bregman goes into the CWS with a .380 batting average, six homers and 52 RBIs. Bregman, who has 16 steals, has collected 18 doubles.
Unlike Walker, who came from Bossier City (La.), Bregman came to LSU from Albuquerque (N.M.). Everyone is familiar with the story of his senior-year injury which prevented him from being a first-round draft choice. As a result, Bregman ended up coming to school.
Bregman's fanaticism with baseball was apparent quite quickly to his teammates. He would text other players to come hit at the stadium late at night. He would catch ground balls in the dark. Bregman was a one-of-a-kind baseball player.
"I have never seen someone like Alex," senior Raph Rhymes said. "He is a different breed. He loves baseball. He wants to learn more about it. Baseball is his life. Alex seems to always be in the know about the game, whether it's college, New Mexico or the professional leagues. He knows everything."
One wouldn't think that the state of New Mexico has produced many major league baseball players. Simply ask Bregman and he rattles off the name of four current major leaguers who played their high school ball in New Mexico.
"There's Cody Ross (Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder)," Bregman said. "There's Jordan Pacheco (Colorado Rockies catcher), who is one of the top hitters in the National League. There's Matt Moore (Tampa Bay Rays pitcher), who has eight wins, and Kyle Blanks (San Diego Padres first baseman)."
Bregman was born to be a baseball player. He said that he had a baseball in his hand by age three. Bregman can recall his first organized baseball game.
"I played my first game when I was four years old," Bregman said. "I turned an unassisted triple play in that (tee-ball) game."
While acknowledging that his father provided words of wisdom, Bregman credited the Albuquerque Baseball Academy for developing his baseball skills. The academy puts together travel teams for boys from age 8 to 18.
"When I was seven, I started playing for the Albuquerque Baseball Academy," Bregman said. "My dad played college ball in New Mexico. He never told me how to hit and throw. He let the guys at the baseball academy do the coaching. He simply told me 'hustle never has a bad day.'"
LSU coach Paul Mainieri gave Bregman a lot of responsibility at the start of the season. The freshman would bat third in the lineup and would replace four-year starter Austin Nola at shortstop. Understand that Bregman hadn't played shortstop for an extended period of time since early in high school.
Bregman, who played for Team USA in the summers of 2010 and 2011, didn't shy away from the challenges of being a key first-year player in the Southeastern Conference. He expected to have immediate success.
"I was really confident coming into this year," Bregman said. "I have put in a lot of work and I trust myself. I think I could have done better this year. I got away from what I should be doing a few weeks ago."
Bregman is in Omaha for the College World Series for the first time in his life. However, he understands what Omaha means to college baseball.
"I have never been to Omaha," Bregman said. "I have just watched (College World Series) on TV. When I was eight years old, I was a bat boy for the New Mexico Lobos. I remember going to U of A (Arizona) for a game. Those guys always talked about Omaha. I've talked to coach. I realize it's just another game."
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