The Southern Miss baseball team's chances at getting back to Omaha for the first time since 2009 will rely heavily on a young pitching staff.
The USM lineup will have as much depth as it's ever had in Scott Berry's eighth season as head coach, but that will mean little unless a relatively inexperienced group of pitchers comes through in 2017.
USM opens the season at 4 p.m. on Feb. 17, beginning a three-game home series with Northeastern.
Berry was noncommittal Wednesday about who his Friday night starter will be to open the season. While junior lefty Kirk McCarty is coming off an All-Conference USA season, junior right-hander Hayden Roberts seems on pace to get the ball first for the Golden Eagles.
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Roberts underwent Tommy John surgery in his sophomore year at Alabama Southern Community College and didn't regain his form until late last year at USM, getting the start in the C-USA title game. He didn't get the win in the 3-2 victory over the Owls, but he gave up one run on four hits in 4 2/3 innings.
Roberts, a native of the Mobile area, was also strong in a four-inning start against South Alabama in the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee, Fla., giving up no runs on one hit.
While Berry isn't ready to name him the Friday night starter, Roberts relishes the idea of being the first man on the mound each weekend.
“I love it,” Roberts said Wednesday during USM baseball's media day. “That's the vibe we're getting right now. We're really going to be tough as a pitching staff on the weekend.”
Roberts is fully healthy and aiming for a better approach as a starter this season.
“I always wanted the big strikeout. I had to get away from that being a starter,” Roberts said. “It's just getting deeper into ball games, not running my pitch count up so much. I developed another pitch, got my sinker and changeup going better than last year. I think those two things are big keys.”
McCarty is the unquestioned ace for the Golden Eagles after going 8-1 with a 3.15 ERA in 17 appearances last year. He struck out 89 and walked 27 in 88 2/3 innings.
He may slide into the Saturday starter role in order to break up right-handed starters on Friday and Sunday, but he could move up to Friday if another lefty, sophomore Stevie Powers, gets the start on Sunday.
The 5-foot-10 McCarty, who is physically stronger than he was a year ago, is looking to sharpen his approach on the mound.
“I've just been working on finishing pitches more, staying down in the zone and being as efficient as possible,” the former Oak Grove standout said. “That's our motto all around as a pitching staff – get ahead of hitters, throw strikes and let our defense play behind us.”
The Sunday starter's role is up for grabs with freshman right-hander Cody Carroll, sophomore right-hander Calder Mikell and Powers among the players in the mix.
Sophomore right-hander Nick Sandlin will return to his closing role after saving 12 games last year and Berry said he believes he has six to eight options in middle relief, including Mikell, junior right-hander Colt Smith and junior lefty Jake Davis. Berry hopes sophomore right-hander Jaylon Keys can contribute, but he is recovering from an injury in the fall.
Berry mentioned right-hander Alex Nelms, a Gulfport product, as another option out of the bullpen and sixth-year senior Hunter Stevens could also see time on the mound.
Third baseman Taylor Braley and freshman center fielder Matt Wallner also seem guaranteed pitching opportunities with Braley possibly getting some mid-week starts. Wallner and Braley will likely be two of the more powerful bats in the USM lineup this season.
Berry lost his starting catcher, Chuckie Robinson, to the Houston Astros in the MLB Draft, but he likes what he has seen out of Cole Donaldson, a sophomore transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
Donaldson will have big shoes as a manager of the pitching staff.
“He'll have a significant impact in the absence of Chuckie,” Berry said. “He's very athletic. He's kind of old school. I look at him as a Benito Santiago. He's very athletic, has a very good arm.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Northeastern
When: 4 p.m., Feb. 17
Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg
Radio: 1580 AM