As conference play heats up for Southern Miss, the more chances Gulfport's Alex Nelms is receiving out of the bullpen.
The freshman right-hander has pitched in three of USM's last four games, twice against FIU over the weekend and Tuesday night against Ole Miss. He's gradually earning an increased role in one of the best bullpens in Conference USA.
Entering the season, it was no sure thing that the former Gulfport High School ace would receive time on the mound this season. As the spring wore on, he increasingly gained the confidence of head coach Scott Berry.
With seven appearances under his belt, Nelms has earned Berry's trust.
“Alex has pitched really well,” Berry said Saturday. “Every time he's come in he's commanded the zone. He's got good secondary command. His presence has been outstanding on the mound for a true freshman.”
The first outing of Nelms' USM career didn't go quite as planned. His first pitch was pulled over the right field wall for a home run by Northeastern pinch hitter Nick Fanneron on Feb. 18 at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg.
He showed he could keep his cool after the rough start, getting out of the inning without giving up any further damage.
Nelms has a 1-0 record with a 3.48 ERA in seven games this season.
While some freshman pitchers tend to overthrow and lose command, Nelms has proven steady out of the bullpen. He has nine strikeouts compared to two walks in 10 1/3 innings.
“I'm loving it. It's amazing,” Nelms said of his early experience at USM. “I'm just trying to use whatever I can. These guys can play, for real.”
Nelms picked up the first win of his college career on March 15 in a 20-5 win over Columbia. After a pair of USM pitchers struggled to start the game, Nelms entered in the fourth inning and gave up one run on three hits in three innings.
He has twice had three-inning outings this season, giving Berry another option in long relief.
The adjustment to the bullpen has gone well for Nelms, who has always been a starter and was a member of the Sun Herald All-South Mississippi Team in 2016.
“It was difficult in the fall just getting the routine down,” he said. “You get up mid-game and you're warming up faster. It's getting easier as time goes on.”
Berry and USM pitching coach Michael Federico have long asked their pitchers to rely heavily on a changeup and that's the next step for Nelms.
“I started developing a changeup,” he said. “It's all about throwing strikes and getting ahead of the count.
“I think I'm throwing my slider a little harder and for more strikes. I'm trying to get my fastball (to have) arm-side run and keep locating the changeup.”
Nelms is part of a deep bullpen that features a 12-3 record, a 2.73 ERA and eight saves. Sophomore right-hander Nick Sandlin and freshman right-hander Matt Wallner, two pitchers who have been called on to close out games, were both recently named mid-season All-American.
Junior right-hander Colt Smith has also proven reliable with a 1-0 record and 1.66 ERA in 11 relief appearances this season.
“Everyone motivates everyone,” Nelms said. “We're all competitors. If you see guys go out there and do well that makes you want to do it too. That helps the team.”
USM sits in first place in Conference USA at 26-8 overall and 10-2 in C-USA play. The Eagles are well on pace to be one of the eight teams to qualify for the C-USA Tournament on May 24-28 at MGM Park in Biloxi.
Nelms is just happy to contribute and be part of one of the best starts to a season in USM baseball history.
“It's a lot of fun. The main thing is learning from the older guys,” he said. “These guys know a lot about baseball. They're really good.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Rice
When: 6:30 p.m., Friday
Radio: 1580 AM, WPMO