The Hattiesburg Regional has been the hottest ticket in the state of Mississippi this week.
Even the Southern Miss players haven’t escaped the clamor for a seat at Pete Taylor Park.
“I’ve had a lot of former players asking,” USM senior first baseman Dylan Burdeaux said Thursday. “It’s a tough ticket, no doubt about it. A lot of families are coming in. It’s tough to get everybody tickets, but it’s awesome to have that many people coming out.”
No. 1 seed USM (48-14) will open play at 1 p.m. Friday against No. 4 Illinois Chicago (39-15) in the double-elimination format tournament.
The Golden Eagles are expecting energy to be at an all-time high at The Pete this weekend.
“I think it will be electric,” USM head coach Scott Berry said. “Our fan base has come out in numbers all year long. To get this tournament and be able to host in Hattiesburg, seeing how ticket sales have gone, it has a chance to be very, very exciting.”
No. 3 South Alabama (39-19) will face Mississippi State (36-24) at 6 p.m. to conclude the first day of action.
Mississippi State head coach Andy Cannizaro is taking a chance and throwing junior right-hander Cole Gordon instead of his ace, sophomore left-hander Konnor Pilkington, on Friday.
Berry is taking no such gamble.
Junior lefty Kirk McCarty, who has served as USM’s weekend ace all season, will be the starting pitcher for the Golden Eagles against the Flames of UIC. He is 10-2 with a 2.96 ERA in 15 starts this season, striking out 96 and walking only 16 in 91 1/3 innings.
“I’m excited,” McCarty said. “It’s really a dream come true to be able to pitch in a big game like this. Since I’ve been here, I’ve always missed the (games with big crowds). Hopefully I’ll give the team a good start and help us get that first win in the regional.”
McCarty has responded well in crucial contests so far in his career, including throwing six scoreless innings to beat South Alabama 14-2 last season in the opener of the Tallahassee Regional.
The former Oak Grove star knows the pressure goes up another notch on Friday with the Eagles hosting a regional for the first time since 2003. He’ll likely be pitching in front of the biggest crowd of his career.
“I’ll just have to take it in before the game, see the crowd and put myself on the mound in my head,” McCarty said. “I’ll get out there, flush it and play baseball. The team has done a good job of that all season. We’re excited to prove something to the rest of the country.”
McCarty has been doing his homework this week on UIC, which has a team batting average of .288.
Junior catcher Rob Calabrese leads UIC with a batting average of .357, seven homers and 48 RBIs.
“They’re a very disciplined team, mature team,” McCarty said. “They know how to win and they’ve showed it all year in the conference. They’re a great team. We’ve got a challenge ahead of us.”
UIC will start its own left-hander, senior Jake Dahlberg, against the Golden Eagles. He is 10-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 15 starts as the ace of a staff that has a combined ERA 2.57 — good enough for second in the nation.
The winner of USM-UIC will play the winner of Mississippi State-South Alabama at 6 p.m. Saturday. The loser will play the loser of USA-MSU at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s obviously do or die now,” USM junior third baseman/pitcher Taylor Braley said. “The last two weeks, we already knew we’d get into a regional. We didn’t have much to play for. It’s do or die now. If we don’t win now, we go home.”
All-American honors: Southern Miss sophomore right-handed pitcher Nick Sandlin (second team) and senior first baseman Dylan Burdeaux (third team) garnered All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball on Thursday. Sandlin is 10-1 with a 2.16 ERA with seven saves this season. Burdeaux is batting .348 with 11 homers and 68 RBIs this season.
1 p.m. - Southern Miss vs. Illinois-Chicago
6 p.m. - Mississippi State vs. South Alabama
Location: Pete Taylor Park
Radio: WPMO 1580-AM