Southern Miss Comes Out Swinging

From the time it was announced last year that Southern Mississippi would host Mississippi State on Opening Weekend, the series was destined to be thrust into the spotlight. The showdown was sure to pack Pete Taylor Park and capture the attention of two of college baseball’s most intense fan bases.

Then the 2017 season happened. Southern Miss put together one of the best seasons in program history, winning 50 games, the Conference USA title and hosted a regional for the second time ever. Mississippi State, meanwhile, had a magical season of it own, as Brent Rooker won the Southeastern Conference triple crown and propelled the Bulldogs through a series of injuries to contend for the SEC West title. It culminated in the Hattiesburg Regional final, where Mississippi State upset host Southern Miss to advance to super regionals.

With that as the backdrop, the Opening Weekend showdown grew even larger in stature. Both teams entered the season ranked – Southern Miss at No. 21 and Mississippi State at No. 23 – and with something to prove.

It was Southern Miss that made a statement with an emphatic sweep of Mississippi State. The Golden Eagles rolled to an 11-0 victory on Opening Day, clinched the series with a 7-4 win Saturday and finished the sweep with a 5-2 win Sunday. It was a predictably electric atmosphere in Hattiesburg, with nearly 15.000 fans in attendance over the course of the weekend. Southern Miss never trailed in the series and became the first team to ever beat Mississippi State three times to open a season.

“It was great to watch our team compete,” coach Scott Berry said. “I really felt like they competed from Friday all the way to (Sunday). They really earned the win. In all facets of the game, we played very well.”

While the outside world was hyping the series as a rematch of the regional final, Berry purposely avoided the subject with his team. He did not want to use the Bulldogs or the way last season ended as motivation for his team.

It was probably impossible for the Golden Eagles to completely put last year out of their mind, but Berry said they did a good job of not fixating on revenge.

“The thing I’m most proud of is I feel we really played the game, it wasn’t the opponent,” Berry said. “I’m sure there was a lot of emotion tied in how it ended last year, but I want our guys to be more mature than that and not ride the roller coaster of emotions of who we play.”

Junior righthander Nick Sandlin set the tone for the weekend with his start Friday night. Sandlin has been the Golden Eagles’ closer the last two years, but after they lost their top two starters from last year’s team, Berry made the decision to move him to the front of the rotation. Sandlin delivered a masterful start as he struck out nine batters, walked none and scattered four hits in seven scoreless innings. He outdueled Preseason All-American lefthander Konnor Pilkington (4 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 6 K).
Sandlin has been outstanding out of the bullpen in his career and he made a smooth transition to the rotation. He does a good job of changing arm slots and speeds to keep hitters off balance and had everything working Friday.

“He pitched like a seasoned guy,” Berry said. “He pitched like he’d been a starter all two years prior.”

Meanwhile, Southern Miss’ bats picked up where they left off last season. Outfielder Matt Wallner, the 2017 Freshman of the Year, got off to a solid start to his sophomore year and senior shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd anchored the defense.

Third baseman Luke Reynolds, a transfer from Mississippi State, was the series standout. After sitting out last season after his transfer, he went 6-for-10 with two doubles, a home run and scored six runs in his first action for the Golden Eagles.

“He played tremendous,” Berry said. “He was great at third base and he had some really big at bats for us. He was a presence for sure.”

One weekend does not make a season and both Mississippi State and Southern Miss have a long season ahead of them. The Bulldogs got an outstanding weekend from freshman first baseman Josh Hatcher, who went 6-for-11, and junior outfielder Jake Mangum (4-for-13) was productive at the top of the order. The rest of the team combined for just 11 hits and they will continue to look for answers in the middle of the lineup.

Southern Miss appeared to answer some of its questions as it replaces All-American third baseman/righthander Taylor Braley and its top three pitchers by innings from last year’s team, but now it must show it can build on its early success.

Southern Miss will be tested over the next two weeks as it does not play at home again until March 9. The road trip starts with a visit Tuesday to No. 21 South Alabama.

Berry said the key for Southern Miss will be staying consistent and developing strong chemistry early in the season.

“We just have to stay out of our own way,” he said. “We can’t get bigger than what we think we are, we have to continue to understand consistency. Just being baseball players who show up to play the game in all facets.”

South Alabama rounding into form

CONWAY, S.C. – South Alabama this year brought back a deep, experienced lineup headlined by Preseason All-American outfielder Travis Swaggerty. It was that lineup that powered the Jaguars to an impressive 3-1 Opening Weekend at the Brittan Resorts Baseball at the Beach tournament, hosted by Coastal Carolina.

Swaggerty showed why he’s one of the best players in the country and likely will be drafted in the first round in June, as he homered twice, scored six runs and drew eight walks against just two strikeouts. But the Jaguars are not a one-man lineup and they proved that all weekend long, combining to score 29 runs and produce 13 extra-base hits.

Coach Mark Calvi said the Jaguars’ experience playing together helps make the lineup dangerous.

“That’s an X-factor, when you’ve got guys that have played together for a while, you’ve got some mental chemisty there,” he said. “That goes a long way, too. It’s hard to quantify what that means, but it wins you ballgames, it really does. “

South Alabama needed its lineup to have a big weekend, however, as it is still working out the best way to line up its pitching staff. The Jaguars had to come back in all three of their wins and twice went to the bullpen in the third inning.

There were bright spots for South Alabama’s pitching staff, especially among its newcomers. Junior righthander Chase Lambert, a junior college transfer, threw five scoreless innings over two appearances and picked up a save. Junior righthander Zach Green, another junior college transfer, threw 3.1 scoreless innings in relief to get the Opening Day win against Kansas State. Freshman righthander JoJo Booker, an unsigned fifth rounder, struck out two batters in a perfect inning in his much-anticipated debut.

With so many pitchers moving into new roles for South Alabama, it isn’t surprising that there will be an adjustment period. Calvi said his focus over the next few weeks leading up to the start of Sun Belt Conference play will be figuring out how to line up the pitching staff.

“The novelty to our team is on the mound, that’s where the newness is,” Calvi said. “It’ll take a little bit of time for guys to settle in and to have them in the right positions. That’s my job. Their job is to go out and do what they’re supposed to do.”

South Alabama had a chance to finish the weekend 4-0 but was unable to close out a win Sunday against Indiana and lost on a walk-off grand slam. But it was an Opening Weekend that the Jaguars can feel good about, having beaten Kansas State, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech, all teams that figure to help it build a solid NCAA Tournament resume.

“You want to play a good schedule, you want to play teams with good RPIs,” Calvi said. “Indiana will help us and we’ll help them. I was proud of the way our guys competed, we just didn’t push enough runs across (Sunday).”

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, North Carolina, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Christian, Texas Tech.

Seven of these eight teams are the same as the Eight for Omaha I put together following the 2017 College World Series. The lone difference is Stanford, which takes the place of Cal State Fullerton. The Cardinal were among the teams I tabbed for super regionals, but, at the time, with so much uncertainty surrounding the program as coach David Esquer took over and Tristan Beck continued to work back from injury, I wasn’t quite willing to put them into my CWS picks. Eight months and one sweep at Fullerton later, I feel much more comfortable with Stanford. The Cardinal’s combination of Beck and lefthander Kris Bubic at the front of the rotation will be very difficult to beat all season and their young hitters started the season well. There’s no reason for panic at Fullerton, but they will need to bounce back quickly against a typically stout schedule.

Eye Catchers
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Jake Brodt, 1B, Santa Clara: Bordt on Saturday powered Santa Clara to a 20-9 victory against Boston College when he hit two grand slams in the seventh inning. He is the seventh player to do so since the NCAA began keeping official stats in 1957 and the first to do so since 2000. Brodt, a senior, went 3-for-5 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in the victory, which was Rusty Filter’s first as head coach, and he went 6-for-13 on the weekend.

Cincinnati: Bad weather Thursday in the Midwest caused flight cancellations and prevented many teams from getting to their Opening Weekend series. Cincinnati’s flight to San Diego was one of the ones cancelled, but the Bearcats were able to still get to California thanks to some deft rescheduling. The team flew Saturday morning to San Diego split up on five flights over three hours beginning at 6 a.m. ET, which went through five different connecting cities, and arrived at 1:30 p.m. PT. Cincinnati had just a few hours to collect itself before it opened its season against California at 6 p.m. PT. The Bearcats won, 3-1, finishing their marathon day around 8:15 p.m. PT. Cincinnati was two outs away from sweeping a doubleheader Sunday against San Diego, but will take a 2-1 record on a wild weekend to begin coach Scott Googins’ tenure. Trevor Larnach, OF, Oregon State: After striking out Friday in his first plate appearance of the season, Larnach reached base safely in his next 12 plate appearances, including hitting three homers and two doubles. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior has long possessed plus raw power and is now tapping into it. He has already matched his career home run total and is hitting .889/.923/2.111 through three games.

Nevada-Las Vegas: The Rebels haven’t had a winning season since 2014, when they won the Mountain West Conference and made the NCAA Tournament, but got off to a strong start to 2018 this weekend. UNLV went 3-0 against Indiana State, Oregon and Loyola Marymount in its Marucci Desert Classic. The Rebels twice won in extra innings and are 3-0 for the first time since 2014. Billy Phillips, LHP, Maryland: Three years after he was diagnosed with leukemia, Phillips made his college debut for the Terrapins. Facing Tennessee in the second game of a doubleheader Sunday, Phillips struck out the first batter of his career and then got a double play to complete a scoreless inning. Coach Rob Vaughn said before the season that Phillips has gotten better with every outing he makes and expects the lefty this spring to be a key contributor in the bullpen.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

No. 1 Florida at Miami: This weekend will be the final edition of the rivalry with Jim Morris coaching Miami adding even more juice to one of college baseball’s premier rivalries. Florida (3-0) has won the past three series, including a last season’s sweep in Gainesville, and holds a 27-11 advantage in the series during coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s tenure. The Hurricanes (2-1) will be eager to snap that skid in Morris’ final season.

No. 14 Texas at No. 22 Louisiana State: Two of college baseball’s most storied programs meet for an important series at Alex Box Stadium. LSU (1-2) needs to quickly rebound after getting upset at home by Notre Dame on Opening Weekend. Texas (2-1) put together a solid series win against Louisiana-Lafayette and now faces a significant test on the road.

Dallas Baptist at No. 11 Clemson: The Patriots and Tigers both swept their Opening Weekend series and will now get ready for a showdown at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. DBU is looking for a series win that would catapult it into the Top 25 and provide a signature win for its NCAA Tournament resume. Clemson could also make an early statement with a big nonconference series win.

Two weekend tournaments you shouldn’t miss

Kleberg Bank College Classic in Corpus Christi, Texas: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi hosts Mississippi State, Nicholls State and UC Santa Barbara at Whataburger Field, home of the Double-A Hooks. Mississippi State and UCSB, two teams with lofty preseason expectations, are the headliners and will go to Texas looking to bounce back after getting swept on Opening Weekend.

Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego: The tournament, co-hosted by San Diego and San Diego State, brings a strong field to San Diego, headlined by No. 4 Arkansas. Arizona and Michigan add two more 2017 regional teams to the field and Cal Poly and Grand Canyon are expected to this year contend for spots in the NCAA Tournament. Sunday’s finale between Arizona and San Diego presents a homecoming for Wildcats coach Jay Johnson, who was an assistant coach for the Toreros under Rich Hill for eight years. It will be Johnsons’ first game against USD since taking over at Arizona in 2016.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

No. 23 St. John’s at No. 6 North Carolina, Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET: The strength of both the Red Storm and the Tar Heels is on the mound, raising the possibility for an early-season, midweek pitchers’ duel at Boshamer Stadium. St. John’s (3-0) held Campbell to just two runs in a weekend sweep and will look to stay undefeated. UNC (2-1) will likely have to reach deep into its staff this week, as it plays two midweek games and was forced to use seven pitchers in Sunday’s victory against South Florida.

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