The Walk-off Before The Walk-off

A look at Walker Burchfield’s walk-off winner in the 2022 C-USA Baseball Championship semifinal

It’s hard to win a championship without a few heroes.

Taylor Young, the consistent lead-off man that consistently got on base throughout the championship weekend. Ryan Jennings, who shut out Old Dominion in the first match against the Monarchs to keep Tech in the winner’s bracket. And who could forget Steele Netterville, whose walk-off against UTSA gave Tech its first conference baseball championship since 1987.

But their heroics weren’t just on display in Hattiesburg. These three guys repeatedly delivered all season long. And so did the rest of the proverbial Bulldog Justice League, guys like Cole McConnell, Phillip Matulia, and Kyle Crigger.

Walker Burchfield is… not a name you’d expect to find on that list.

Burchfield is not even a name the casual Tech fan was aware of. Mostly because the junior transfer from Tulane was batting .182, with far more strikeouts than hits while starting in less than half this season’s games. 

And yet, in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and one out in the semifinal elimination game against ODU, it was Burchfield that Lane Burroughs called on to pinch-hit.

Down by a run in the ninth, Walker Burchfield had to deliver. 

A double-play ball doesn’t just end Tech’s shot at a conference championship. It quite possibly ends Tech’s season. And Burchfield, even with his limited opportunities, has grounded into three double plays this season. The only Bulldog with a higher propensity to get doubled up is Logan McLeod, the player currently standing on deck.

So even if Walker walks to tie the game, there’s a pretty good chance we go to extra innings. And it was in extras last year where this same Old Dominion team eliminated Louisiana Tech.

So why bother waiting for four balls if the first pitch is a strike.

It’s hard to swing a metal stick at a small round ball traveling 90 miles per hour and have any say about where that ball ends up going. But there’s not much of a better place inside the boundaries of the field for Burchfield to pick where the ball ended up.

The ball leaps over the shortstop’s head and bounces into short left field. Cole McConnell, the runner on second base, has to hold to make sure the ball lands before he can take off. But once he starts running, he knows he isn’t stopping. At least not until he crosses home plate.

But it’s McConnell you’d expect to be at the plate delivering this walk-off. He’s one of those heroes whose name you know. Mr Cole “Louisiana Tech Single Season RBI Record Holder” McConnell (okay yeah, that’s a mouthful) has been the guy to bring in runs this year, not Walker Burchfield.

But before this moment, neither McConnell nor Burchfield has delivered a walk-off in 2022. In fact, Tech’s most recent walk-off win came over Southern Miss in last year’s conference tournament. It’s been 364 days, Walker Burchfield made sure it wouldn’t be a full calendar year.

But although it was Burchfield that put the ball in play, it was McConnell that had to touch home plate. As McConnell reaches third base, Lane Burroughs holds one arm extended pointed towards home.

It’s a gutsy send, even if the stoic Burroughs makes it look routine with his subtle “go” signal. The Monarch left fielder picks up the ball before McConnell even steps on third base.

The throw easily beats McConnell to the plate. But it’s not perfectly placed. It takes a bounce just in front of the catcher. Brock Gagliardi, playing on an unfamiliar field, misjudges how high the ball will bounce. It goes just under his mitt and to the backstop, and the Bulldogs have advanced to the championship game.

As a pinch hitter, it’s unlikely that Walker Burchfield would be called on in this important spot. It’s unlikely that Burchfield even puts a ball in play, let alone that the ball finds the part of the grass that gives McConnell a chance to score from second. It’s unlikely that a manager sends home the game-winning runner with one out, against the conventional wisdom of baseball. And it’s unlikely that Brock Gagliardi misjudges the throw-in from the outfielder.

Every step in this final play had the odds going against it. But that’s how this team worked these past few years. Bouncing back after a tornado. Hosting a regional. Winning a conference championship.

When the odds are against this Louisiana Tech baseball team we can expect them to deliver.

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