The 2018 season presents a pivotal point in the baseball careers of two former Gulfport Admirals at Southern Miss.
For sophomore right-hander Alex Nelms, the new year presents a chance to make a significant leap and work his way into the weekend rotation.
As for senior outfielder Daniel Keating, this will be his final season in the black and gold. He stands 6-foot-3, 205 pounds and features that rare combination of power and speed, but this will be his last opportunity to prove himself as a Major League prospect.
If the two players pick up their performance in 2018, USM's chances at another C-USA title will be greatly improved.
Unfortunately for Keating, hand surgery prevented him from swinging the bat for much of fall practice. He had the hook of the hamate bone removed, preventing him from seeing live pitching until about a week ago.
“I've been working hard, trying to get to 100 percent,” Keating said last week. “I'm feeling pretty good.
“I just took my first hitting session against live pitching and it went alright considering I hadn't seen live pitching in six months.”
Former USM baseball standout Kameron Brunty suffered the same injury as Keating during the 2012 season and battled his way through the pain. Fortunately for Keating, he's had plenty of time to heal up before the Feb. 16 season opener against Mississippi State at Pete Taylor Park.
Keating's right-handed bat will be important in a USM lineup that could feature as many as five left-handers. If he can improve on his batting average of .261 from a year ago and provide balance to the lineup, the Golden Eagles will prove that much more potent on offense.
While his batting average took a 42-point dip last season, his power numbers saw a nice jump. He hit 11 homers and nine doubles last year after hitting five homers, nine doubles and a triple as a sophomore. When Keating made solid contact in 2017, there was a good chance the ball was going to make a quick trip over the wall. Of his 42 hits, 11 were homers.
It appears likely that Keating will slide back into the role of designated hitter this year, but he and junior Jaylon Keys are also part of a crowded situation in center field.
Keating believes he improved significantly on defense during summer ball, but he's ready to fit in where needed.
“I just want to play to the best of my ability and help the team anyway I can,” the 2016 Conference USA tournament MVP said. “We've got a ton of depth so we should be really competitive. I'll try to stay on the field.”
Adding to the repertoire
Nelms is part of a talented group of sophomores that includes All-American outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner, second baseman Matthew Guidry, catcher Bryant Bowen and 6-foot-7 right-hander Walker Powell.
Nelms made nice contributions out of the bullpen last year in 13 relief appearances and he earned one midweek start for a 1-0 record and a 5.30 ERA.
There was just one part of his repertoire that was missing — an effective changeup.
“(Former USM pitching coach Mike Federico) told me to experiment with it during the summer. No matter how it was going, to keep throwing it,” Nelms said. “At first, it was pretty bad. Then it kind of progressed and at the end of the summer it was pretty good.
“They always told me that if I wanted to be a starter, I've got to have three pitches. I've worked with a few different grips (on the changeup) and I finally found one that works. It should do well for me.”
Senior right-hander Colt Smith, junior lefty Stevie Powers and junior right-hander J.C. Keys entered the spring as favorites to make up three-man weekend rotation, but Nelms is a serious contender to join the group.
When asked if his goal this season was to pitch on weekends, Nelms answered “for sure.”
Nelms has gained 22 pounds since enrolling at USM and that's helped add some speed to a fastball that topped out at 87 miles per hour at Gulfport High School.
He seems destined to get some starts this year, but it remains to be seen.
“I don't exactly know, but if that's the case I'll be ready,” Nelms said. “I'll be ready for wherever they fit me in.”
If USM is to host its second consecutive NCAA Regional, Nelms and Keating will have played a major role in helping the Golden Eagles get there.
Who: Mississippi State vs. Southern Miss
When: 4 p.m. on Feb. 16, 1 p.m. on Feb. 17 and 1 p.m. on Feb. 18
Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg