National observers have questioned whether Southern Miss could come close to a repeat of last year’s 50-win campaign with the departures of Kirk McCarty, Dylan Burdeaux and Taylor Braley to pro baseball.
The Golden Eagles are only three games in, but they’ve already gained plenty of believers.
USM topped Mississippi State 5-2 on Sunday to finish off a three-game sweep at Pete Taylor Park. It marks the first time that the Bulldogs have been swept on the opening week since 1996 in a New Orleans tournament.
USM head coach Scott Berry played down the idea of the sweep as a big moment for his program, but it obviously mattered to his players.
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Sophomore outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner let out a loud yell as he got the final strike to finish off Sunday’s victory.
“I never do that,” he said. “I just remember playing with (Burdeaux and Braley) last year and losing our last game to them. That was a lot of fun to get back at them (in the Hattiesburg Regional).”
For USM junior third baseman Luke Reynolds, the sweep was even more personal. He wore a wide grin all weekend as the Golden Eagles put it on the MSU team he was a member of in 2015.
“I enjoyed every single minute of that,” he said. “That was awesome. These guys all came together this weekend. We had one goal and that was to punch ‘em right in the mouth and keep our foot on their throat, have that mentality and play for one another. We did that to a T. All glory to God and thank you for my teammates.”
Reynolds finished 6-of-10 for the weekend with one homer, five RBIs and six runs scored.
His big hit on Sunday came in the fifth inning on a go-ahead two-run double to right field. Reynolds also scored on the play following a throwing error by MSU pitcher Zach Neff.
Mississippi State (0-3) has nine more road games to play before returning to Starkville for the March 6 home opener.
“With so many young kids out on the field and their introduction to college baseball here against this outstanding team, we got punched in the mouth Friday night,” MSU coach Andy Cannizaro said. “I felt like we responded better on Saturday. We got into a good ball game again (Sunday). This particular team is going to get better and better the more we play and the more things we do.”
The USM bullpen, led by Jacob Weirich, Keller Bradford and Wallner, held MSU scoreless over the final six innings.
Wallner hit 94 miles per hour on the mound in his perfect ninth inning, a good sign for the Minnesotan after being limited on the mound late last season with a hip injury.
“That’s real encouraging,” Berry said of Wallner’s performance. “That frees us up with (Nick Sandlin) as a starter. I know that shocked everybody when we announced him as (the Friday starter), but we were grooming him knowing that Matt was healthy.”
USM starting pitcher J.C. Keys was cruising along until he began to struggle in the third inning. He gave up two runs on one hit, walking two.
Weirich, a freshman from Jefferson City, Missouri, threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up the win. He struck out three and walked two.
While USM still has to solidify its starting rotation, the bullpen and the lineup appeared to be first rate against the SEC powerhouse Bulldogs.
“We knew we had all the talent in the world,” Reynolds said. “We have great coaches, great people all behind us. We’ve got a great support staff. We know we have the talent to keep this thing rolling as far as we can go.”
Back in the saddle
Berry returned to his role of head coach on Sunday after sitting out the first two games due to a suspension for his ejection from the 2017 season finale.
He joked that he received text messages from people telling him he may want to sit out Sunday’s game after hitting coach Chad Caillet led the Eagles to back-to-back wins to begin the series.
“I watched (the first two games) on the computer and I approached it as a fan,” Berry said. “Not necessarily as a coach, but as a fan watching the game. I was trying to see if our team gave me any reason, if I was a fan, to come watch them or come back to the next game. I wasn’t disappointed and I showed up the next day.”
USM will travel to South Alabama (3-1) at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
MSU starting pitcher Jacob Billingsley earned a complete-game victory over USM in the Hattiesburg Regional last year, but didn’t have the same success on Sunday. He gave up two runs on four hits in four innings. He struck out three and walked two.
Neff (0-1) was credited with the loss after giving up three runs, one earned, in one inning.