Southern Miss star sophomore Matt Wallner was a major two-way threat as an outfielder and relief pitcher through the first half of his freshman campaign in 2017, but a hip injury limited him on the mound late in the season.
With Wallner mostly sidelined as a pitcher, more pressure fell on fellow right-hander and All-American Nick Sandlin to close out games and have longer outings.
USM head coach Scott Berry has plans to eventually turn Wallner into a starting pitcher, but his status on the mound for 2018 is in some question after he threw sparingly during fall practice.
However, the odds of Wallner pitching early this season seemed to have improved after the native Minnesotan stepped back on the Hattiesburg campus following the holidays.
“The encouraging thing is he came back from break and told (pitching coach Christian Ostrander) that he’s ready to get back out there and do it,” Berry said. “We’ll kind of keep a leash on him and not let him do too much too early.”
If Wallner plays a significant role on a pitching staff that lost its top two starters to the MLB Draft, it would be a significant boost to the Golden Eagles. Following outstanding junior seasons in Hattiesburg, left-handed ace Kirk McCarty is in the Cleveland Indians organization and right-hander Taylor Braley signed with the Miami Marlins.
Rated as the 11th best prospect for the 2019 MLB Draft by Perfect Game, Wallner is regarded as a player who could play in the outfield or pitch as a pro. His fastball reaches well into the 90’s and he showed incredible power at the plate for a freshman.
He took part in training camp with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, but decided against joining the squad for international competition after coaches told him that they preferred he pitch. He wanted to rest his sore hip in order to be better prepared for USM’s fall practice.
A left-handed batter, Wallner was a consensus All-American in 2017, hitting .336 with 19 homers and 63 RBIs as the team’s starting center fielder. As a pitcher, he was 2-0 with three saves and a 1.84 ERA in 14 2/3 innings over nine appearances. He struck out 15 batters and walked seven.
Wallner will make the move to right field this season while last year’s right fielder, Mason Irby, shifts to left.
Jaylon Keys, a transfer from Meridian Community College who sat out last season with an injury, will have the edge in center when practice resumes on Jan. 26. Gulfport native Daniel Keating sat out fall practice after having surgery on the hamate bone in his hand, but he will also compete for time in center field and at designated hitter.
USM will open the 2018 season with a three-game series against Mississippi State on Feb. 16-18.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Mississippi State
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
Tickets: SouthernMissTickets.com, 1-800-844-TICK