If there were any lingering questions for Nick Sandlin in his first game back from injury, those were answered in the span of 11 pitches.
The junior right-hander lasted five nearly perfect innings as Southern Miss (28-11, 13-4) picked up the 8-0 win over Middle Tennessee at Pete Taylor Park. The victory gave USM its first three-game sweep in Conference USA play this season.
Returning to his usual All-American form, the Georgia native was outstanding from the outset.
Sandlin breezed through the first inning, striking out three consecutive Middle Tennessee batters. He tossed 11 pitches and the Blue Raiders didn't touch a single one, often swinging and missing on his breaking ball.
Saturday's contest was Sandlin's first outing since he lasted a single inning in the series opener against Western Kentucky on April 6. He left the game with shoulder tightness and was kept off the mound last week to make sure he had enough time to recover.
Sandlin said that the tightness had been building in his shoulder over “a few games” before he left the WKU game early.
As of Saturday night, all is well.
“That's as good as I felt in a month so I can't complain about it,” Sandlin said.
His performance on Saturday should quell the concern of head coach Scott Berry, fans and MLB scouts hoping to make Sandlin a draft selection in June.
Berry and pitching coach Christian Ostrander made the final decision on Thursday to put Sandlin back on the mound against MTSU.
“He was feeling a lot better,” Berry said. “It's almost like that tightness went away there around Tuesday. He threw a pen on Wednesday and he said he felt very good. I wanted to see how he felt on Thursday. He came out and tossed, said he felt great. That's when we made the decision to go ahead and start him in the second game.”
Sandlin faced 16 batters in the game and struck out 12. He gave up one hit and walked none on 73 pitches.
“The main thing is he was 100 percent healthy and he felt like his old self,” Berry said. “We certainly didn't want to push it.”
Sandlin improved to 5-0 and dropped his ERA to 1.17. He has 87 strikeouts with six walks in 54 innings.
“The last few days, I felt good,” he said. “Just before the game, I felt like regular. I was looking forward to coming out here today to get back at it.”
Matt Wallner was 3-for-5 at the plate with two runs scored. Hunter Slater provided the big blast of the game on a grand slam in the third inning – his eighth homer of the season.
Gulfport's Daniel Keating followed Slater with a solo shot, his third of the season, for back-to-back homers.
In the first game of the day, USM cruised to an 11-2 victory with a 15-hit effort.
Redshirt sophomore Walker Powell (4-2) put in a quality outing to pick up the victory. He gave up two runs on five hits in six innings, striking out four and walking one.
Luke Reynolds hit his eighth home run of the season and LeeMarcus Boyd provided his fifth.