The Southern Miss baseball team may be entering the most difficult slate to start a season since Scott Berry took over the program 10 years ago.
The Golden Eagles play host to Purdue at 4 p.m. on Friday in the first of three games to open the 2019 campaign at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. Game 2 is set for 4 p.m. on Saturday and first pitch for Game 3 takes place at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
USM will have nine games against teams that earned postseason bids a year ago over the first 10 contests. USM takes on Troy in Pearl on Feb. 20 before entering weekend series against 2018 College World Series participant Mississippi State and Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference.
“There’s so much parity out there today,” Berry said Tuesday. “You have to show up everyday to have a chance to win.”
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Berry has yet to commit to a starting pitcher for Sunday’s game, but he does know that junior right-hander Walker Powell will start on Friday and senior lefty Stevie Powers will go on Sunday. Powers was 5-2 with a 4.07 ERA in 15 games last year, registering 73 strikeouts and 13 walks. Powell was 7-3 with a 3.80 ERA, striking out 62 and walking 14 in 16 games.
Junior outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner was expected to get the opportunity to start on the mound at some point early in the season, but a strain in his lower forearm won’t allow him to pitch this weekend, according to Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com. He may be relegated to the designated hitter role against Purdue, but is expected to fully recover from the injury.
It appears that Berry has decided on a primary shortstop in senior Storme Cooper, who has seen most of his time at second base throughout his career. Cooper has always been a reliable defensive option and he developed a knack for clutch hitting through his first two seasons. In 226 at-bats over that stretch, he knocked in 46 runs.
The 2018 season was a struggle at the plate for Cooper, who had just three hits in 33 at-bats, but Berry is confident that the Missouri native is ready to have his best season at the plate as a senior.
“His career has been somewhat of a roller coaster,” Berry said. “As we’ve seen before, guys tend to turn in really good senior years. We’re hoping he will be like Nick Dawson, who we moved to shortstop that senior year and played really well.”
Redshirt freshman Will McGillis, who features a more potent bat, also has a shot to see some innings at shortstop this season.
USM will have an entirely new left side of the infield with freshman Danny Lunch, the younger brother of former star first baseman Tim Lynch, taking over at third base.
Berry said that his team has been battling illness this week and that the coaching staff avoided group workouts on Tuesday to prevent it from spreading. He hopes that everybody will be fully healthy for Friday’s opener.
The starting nine for USM on Friday will look something like: LF — Gabe Montenegro, CF — Fred Franklin, RF — Matt Wallner, 3B — Danny Lynch, SS — Storme Cooper, 2B — Matt Guidry, 1B — Hunter Slater, C — Cole Donaldson, DH — Erick Hoard.
Stepping into the 3 spot
With Wallner shifting to right field from center, Berry may have a platoon situation in center with senior Fred Franklin and a left-handed swinging freshman, Hunter LeBlanc, both on track to see playing time.
“Consistency is the key there to help us win games,” Berry said.
The most important spot to replace in the lineup will be in the three-hole, where Luke Reynolds hit .389 last year on his way to being named Conference USA Player of the Year. He is now a member of the Chicago Cubs organization.
“It will probably be Hunter Slater,” Berry said. “We’ll be hitting him three or Wallner can hit three or four. It will probably be Slater more than anyone.”
Slater, a senior first baseman, hit .309 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs in 2018, featuring an on-base percentage of .393.
A look at the Boilermakers
In Purdue, USM faces a team that replaces the majority of a starting lineup that led the way to a 38-21 season and the Boilermakers’ third trip to the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore outfielder Ben Nisle is expected to be the most powerful bat in the Purdue lineup after hitting .304 with seven homers and 43 RBIs. No other returner hit more than one home run last year.
USM’s returners hit a total of 41 homers a year ago.
Purdue has announced announced a right-left-right pitching rotation of Dalton Parker, Ryan Beard and Andrew Brohm. Parker was 5-0 with a 3.21 ERA out of the bullpen last season and Beard was 5-3 with a 4.26 ERA with 11 starts. Brohm had a 2-0 record with a 4.50 ERA in 12 appearances.