Southern Miss

This USM junior has gone from an All-American closer to an even better starter. Here’s how.

Southern Miss right-hander Nick Sandlin offers a pitch Friday night against Georgia Southern at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss right-hander Nick Sandlin offers a pitch Friday night against Georgia Southern at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. USM media relations

College baseball pitchers tend to be inconsistent, occasionally losing their cool and control on the mound.

Even as an All-American closer his first two years at Southern Miss, Nick Sandlin occasionally fell into bad habits.

In his first season as a starter, the junior from Evans, Georgia, has been nearly flawless.

“He’s pounding the zone and letting the ball work for him,” USM head coach Scott Berry said Friday night after a 4-3 win over Georgia Southern.

The right-hander put in another stellar performance against GSU, striking out 12 and walking one in 7 innings. The junior gave up two earned runs on five hits.

He didn’t get the victory, but USM wouldn’t have had a shot Friday night if not for the work he put in at Pete Taylor Park.

Hunter Slater provided the 10th-inning heroics with a walk-off single that one-hopped the fence in left field with none out and the bases loaded to give the Golden Eagles the victory over Georgia Southern. USM improved to 9-4.

USM’s other All-American, Matt Wallner, got the win by throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings in relief, moving in from center field to pitch with one out in the eighth inning. He struck out one, walked none and allowed two hits.

Wallner has taken over the closer role from Sandlin, and that move is paying off for the Golden Eagles.

Settling in

After two standout seasons in the bullpen, Sandlin has proven even more dominant as a starting pitcher. He sometimes lost his accuracy in the relief role, hitting four consecutive FAU batters in one outing a year ago.

As a starter, he rarely misses his spot.

“I think mostly I’m just competing in the strike zone a lot more,” Sandlin said. “The past couple of years walks have hurt me a good bit and I felt like once I got going in my longer (outings) is when I pitched better. I’ve been throwing a lot more strikes this year and that’s helped me the most.”

His strikeout-to-walk ratio is among the best of the nation, with 41 total strikeouts and just a pair of walks.

He entered the game ranked second in the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio behind FAU’s Kyle Marman, who had 32 strikeouts and one walk. Mississippi State junior lefty Konnor Pilkington sat in third place with 23 Ks and one walk.

Berry believes Sandlin’s improvement may be credited to the new schedule.

“It may be a routine. It may be the six days off between starts, knowing when his next appearance is going to be,” Berry said. “When he was in relief, I thought the main thing with him is he was already ready to go. I feel like this year he’s got into that routine.”

Sandlin (2-0, 1.67) pitched a career-high 112 pitches in just his fourth start of the season, leaving open the possibility that he could begin to work even deeper into games going forward.

“I threw 102 last weekend and felt fine,” Sandlin said. “I felt fine tonight could have kept going, but I’ve just got to trust the bullpen. I think I threw 140 or something in high school, maybe the most I’ve thrown. Once I’m out there, I feel pretty good. I’ll be pretty sore the next few days, but I want to give my team the best chance to win.”

Keating’s big hit

With the Southern Miss lineup struggling mightly at the plate and trailing 2-1, Gulfport product Daniel Keating stepped to the plate with two out and the bases loaded in the sixth inning Friday night.

Georgia Southern ace right-hander Brian Eichorn immediately dealt Keating a pair of breaking balls to go up 0-2.

There was no mystery as to what was coming on the next pitch – another breaking ball, this time on the outer half of the plate.

Keating showed patience with the bat, yanking the ball through the left side of the infield for a crucial two-run single to give the Golden Eagles a 3-2 lead.

“That was awesome, coming back after the two curve balls and hitting the third that he left up,” Waller said. “That was the game changer for us, the momentum swing.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee