TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA – A leadoff hitter's role is to create a spark for his team's offense.
Sunday night, Taylor Walls did just that and then some, propelling Florida State to its 22nd trip to the College World Series following a Super Regional sweep of Sam Houston State.The native of Cordele, Georgia, homered in the very first at-bat of the game and reached base in all seven of his plate appearances to lead the Seminoles in the 19-0 thumping of the Bearkats.
“He reached base seven times? That's a two-week period for me when I played,” FSU coach Mike Martin joked following the game. “When he hit the ball out of the ballpark on the very first at-bat, it was a pretty good indication of the talent he possesses. It was a big lift and it carried through our entire team.”
On a night in which the Noles' offense was at its strongest and pounded out 13 hits, Walls was the catalyst. The junior shortstop was 3 for 3, with two home runs and four runs batted in while also walking four times and scoring a career-high five runs.“We're a big-inning ball club and that starts with him and he knows that,” said Quincy Nieporte, who had a home run and four runs batted in himself. “He's embraced the role and does what he can to get the inning started, and he certainly did that tonight.”
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Walls' recent resurgence has been a vindicating feat for a player who took a while to find his stride this season.
After hitting .355 in 2016 and earning both All-America honors and a spot on the U.S. Collegiate National team over the summer, expectations were high for Walls.
However, the shortstop found the encore to be more difficult that the original performance, and at one point saw his average drop to the low .220s in the middle of the year.“You have to be really mentally tough to play this game,” Walls said. “Until you experience struggles, you don't know how it can affect you mentally.”
“I know he wasn't thrilled with his performance at the start of the season because he has so much high expectations for himself,” Nieporte added. “But we know every single pitch, every at-bat he has he will do everything possible to get on base.”
Walls continued to work at his craft, spending hours with hitting coach Mike Martin Jr. to find the success he knew he was capable of bringing.
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Eventually, signs of the old Walls returned.
First it was a strong weekend in a series win at Louisville to end the regular season.
Then it was leading the Noles to an ACC Championship a week later.
In the NCAA Tallahassee Regional, Walls saved FSU's season by drawing a two-out walk in the bottom of the ninth when his team was down to its final strike. When fellow junior Dylan Busby hit his heroic triple a batter later, it was Walls who crossed home plate to tie the game.Walls' culmination came this weekend against the Bearkats, as FSU clinched another trip to Omaha. On the weekend, Walls was 5 for 6 in the two games with a pair of home runs, four RBIs and eight runs scored.
What makes the leadoff man so potent is his patient eye at the plate, as he walked six times in the series, moving him into No. 2 in the country this season in the category. He's also seen his average jump to .276, up over fifty points from a few months ago.
“I was underperforming and not contributing the way I think I should have,” Walls said of his early-season struggles. “But I just grinded through it, my teammates and coaches picked me up and hard work eventually pays off.”
“That's one of the best shortstops we've played against all year,” Sam Houston State coach Matt Deggs said about Walls. “He's going to play in the big leagues.”
As FSU embarks on its quest for the program's first ever national championship, Walls will be paramount in setting the tone for the Seminole attack against some of the best arms in the country. With the confidence back in his bat and his knack for jumpstarting any ball game, the junior shortstop is ready for the college game's biggest stage.
“I'm not satisfied with what I've done the past month or what I did tonight and I never will be,” Walls said. “The only thing that will satisfy me is to win in Omaha.”