If anyone needs a sign of how much USC baseball coach Ray Tanner believes in freshman third baseman Christian Walker, they simply need to check the opening-day lineup card.
Friday afternoon against Duquesne, Tanner plans to write Walker's name in the No. 3 spot in the batting order, a place usually reserved for a team's best hitter.
Even if outfielder Jackie Bradley was healthy and first baseman Nick Ebert was academically eligible, Walker still might have been slotted there. After fall practice - during which the 6-foot, 210-pounder from Limerick, Pa., showcased his capacity to hit line drives all over Carolina Stadium - Tanner was sold not just on Walker's power but on the approach he has taken to facing better pitching.
"I continue to be impressed with his ability to hit. There's no way to know what kind of year he'll have, but I believe he can contribute in a big way offensively," Tanner said. "Christian certainly has power, but he's not just going to be a power hitter. He's a good hitter who will hit home runs."
Tanner knew he had the makings of a good hitter when Walker - who at Kennedy-Kenrick High played for Tom Sergio, a former player of Tanner's at N.C. State - verbally committed to USC after his sophomore season. Walker went on to prove as much. By the time he finished high school, PG Crosschecker had him rated the No. 88 prep prospect in the nation.
The right-handed-hitting Walker flashed his talent a year ago during the International Power Showcase Home Run Derby at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., where 70 high school hitters from the United States and nine other countries competed. Using both wood and metal bats, he hit a total of 19 home runs to win the event, besting players such as Sports Illustrated cover boy Bryce Harper and Dante Bichette Jr., son of the former major leaguer.
"That was an unbelievable experience," Walker said.
He hopes to have the same sort of experience in his opening series for the Gamecocks, which will take place in front of 10 family members who traveled to Columbia. But while some freshmen might be nervous about being inserted into the starting lineup of a perennial SEC power, Walker's confidence doesn't allow it.
"A lot of people talked to me about being nervous. I told them it was more about being anxious to get out on the field and get the season started," Walker said. "I'm very pleased. I knew I could do it."
Tanner did, too.
"Certainly you start with his talent level. Is he good enough? Absolutely," Tanner said. "But he also has shown both poise and composure in the way he handles instruction and adversity."
He has encountered both as he has made the adjustment to playing third base at the collegiate level, where the speed of the game is much faster. With Tanner serving as infield coach, Walker has heard plenty about what he needs to do to get better.
"He's had to endure the wrath of the head coach coaching him," Tanner said. "From a coaching standpoint, I'll never hesitate to challenge him. He's very mature, and he doesn't need to be molly-coddled. He's handled it well, but he needs to continue to make strides defensively."
Walker realizes where his focus needs to be to keep his starting spot.
"Obviously, there's room for improvement," he said. "My defense hasn't been where I wanted it to be, but I'm working hard on it every day."
Tanner mentions Justin Smoak from a comparative point when talking about Walker. And the last time the coach spoke so highly of a freshman was a year ago when he raved about Jackie Bradley, who went on to earn consensus freshman All-America honors.
Walker understands the spotlight will be on him, but he's not going to get caught up in trying to produce the big numbers of those predecessors.
"There always is that pressure in the back of your head," he said. "But I don't want to set goals too high. I don't want to try to live up to somebody else. I'd rather set my own pace and do what I know how to do."
He also knew that he wanted to play at USC. During the fourth round of last summer's Major League Baseball draft, the Boston Red Sox called to see if he would agree to an offer, but it wasn't enough for him to change his commitment. The White Sox made a run at him in the 37th round to no avail either. Eventually, the Los Angeles Dodgers used their 49th-round pick on him, but Walker was set on playing college baseball.
Today he's thrilled to be playing in a facility like Carolina Stadium - which he called "unbelievable" - and he's more pleased to be surrounded by the level of talenton the USC roster. He's not sure exactly what to expect, but he's looking to be a big part of a big season.
"We're always really good here," he said. "I haven't seen all the competition in the SEC yet, but I think we have a good chance of going pretty far."
How far the Gamecocks go might come down to their new No. 3 hitter.