The bats are there again for a potent offense, but the Southern Miss baseball team’s hopes of earning its second consecutive NCAA Regional host site will likely rely on how the pitching staff holds up.
Led by consensus All-American outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner, USM should instill fear in opposing pitchers with its bats. However, the all-important weekend rotation has two large holes to fill.
Ace left-hander Kirk McCarty is now in the Cleveland Indians’ system and Taylor Braley signed with the Miami Marlins. The two Oak Grove products were outstanding last year, combining to go 17-4 in 31 starts.
Along with the departure of Braley and McCarty, USM is now working under a new pitching coach — Christian Ostrander. The former Jones County Junior College and Gulfport High School head coach served as pitching coach at Louisiana Tech the last seasons before replacing Michael Federico, who is now the head coach at Louisiana-Monroe.
The good news for USM is that right-hander Colt Smith, who took over Friday night duties midway through the Conference USA slate last year, is back for his senior campaign. He struggled somewhat in the postseason, but finished 6-2 with a 3.36 ERA in 23 appearances, including six starts.
Smith is on pace to reclaim his weekend role when USM opens the season with a three-game series against Mississippi State in Hattiesburg on Feb. 16-18. Practice will resume at USM on Friday.
USM head coach Scott Berry points to two of his more experienced pitchers as likely contenders to fill out the weekend rotation — junior right-hander J.C. Keys and junior left-hander Stevie Powers.
“They all had experience last year,” Berry said. “Stevie Powers is a left-handed option with seven starts in his career.
“J.C. and (Powers), we’re looking for those guys to move their game forward.”
Powers was 3-0 with a 5.13 ERA in a team-leading 30 appearances last year. Keys caught fire late and finished 3-3 with a 5.56 ERA in 16 appearances that included eight starts.
Admiral in the hunt
Berry also named sophomore right-hander Alex Nelms, a Gulfport product, as a contender for the weekend rotation. He finished 1-0 with a 5.30 ERA in 14 appearances, including one start, as a freshman.
“Alex has worked really hard and put himself in position to have a lot of opportunities,” Ostrander said. “I like the fact that he’s a strike thrower.”
Cody Carroll, another sophomore right-hander, will look to rebound after a disappointing freshman season that began with him in the weekend rotation. He was 0-0 with a 11.93 ERA in eight games, including five starts, last year.
One wildcard in the weekend rotation may be redshirt sophomore right-hander Walker Powell, who showed plenty of promise before his 2016 freshman campaign came to an early end with Tommy John surgery. The 6-foot-7 Powell was 4-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 18 games (four starts) in 2016.
He has pitched two bullpen sessions since returning from the holidays and the coaching staff is encouraged by what they’ve seen.
“He’s still got to work out a kink or two, but I thought his bullpen went well (Sunday),” Ostrander said. “He feels good and that’s the most important thing.”
Ostrander said that he expects Powell to see some action early in the season.
The pitching coach is also upbeat about what he’s seen in bullpen sessions out of Wallner, who was mostly sidelined late last year as a pitcher due to a hip injury.
“He’s an everyday position player so we’ve got to keep him fresh,” Ostrander said. “He’s thrown a couple of bullpen sessions and is doing well.”
Berry hopes that Wallner can eventually become a starting pitcher at some point before his eligibility is up, but Ostrander expects the Minnesotan to work in relief when the season begins.
Wallner and junior relief pitcher Nick Sandlin were both named First-Team All-American by D1Baseball.com on Tuesday. While it’s unclear who will be the starting ace, USM can rely on Sandlin as the team’s closer for the third consecutive season. He was 10-2 with a 2.38 ERA and eight saves in 29 appearances last year, often entering in middle relief and closing out games.
USM will add some experience to the bullpen in senior right-hander Keller Bradford, a transfer from Louisiana-Monroe and the son of former USM and MLB reliever Chad Bradford. He was busy out of the pen at ULM, posting a 2-3 record and 4.31 ERA in 35 appearances in 2016.
USM will rely on a handful of first-year pitchers to fill out the bullpen, including two freshman left-handers — Ryan Och of Carver, Minnesota, and Jacob Weirich of Jefferson City, Missouri.
“Both of those guys are exciting,” Berry said. “They’ve got some good days ahead for us.”
Hinds Community College transfer Adam Jackson, a lefty who stands 6-4, 208, will add experience to the bullpen. Sophomore Sean Tweedy, who had a 3.00 ERA in 11 appearances last year, will give USM yet another left-handed option.
Two key right-handers out of the bullpen will be senior Trent Driver (2-1, 5.58) and Jones County Junior College transfer Mason Strickland.
Driver sat out the fall after having an arm procedure over the summer.
“We’re taking it slow with him,” Ostrander said. “He’s thrown a pen and he’s out there moving around. We’d love to have everybody on point in four weeks. If it takes six weeks, that’s fine.”
Overall, Ostrander likes the mix of arms that he’ll have to work with this season.
“We’ll have a lot of different looks where they’re not all coming out of the same spot,” Ostrander said. “There’s a good mixture.”
Who: Mississippi State vs. Southern Miss
When: Feb. 16-18
Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg
Tickets: SouthernMissTickets.com, 1-800-844-TICK