Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner shows out in upset over Ole Miss
Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry was frustrated Saturday afternoon.
His team had just finished off its third consecutive weekend with a conference series defeat, dropping the regular season finale, 13-10, to UAB.
“We’re certainly not deserving of an at-large (bid),” Berry said as he addressed his team’s postseason chances.
The 10th-year USM head coach said Saturday that he believes his team will have to win this week’s Conference USA baseball tournament at MGM Park in Biloxi in order to secure the program’s fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
By Monday, Berry was a little less certain on what it will take to put his team in the postseason and that it would at least take a “very deep” run in the C-USA tournament to have a chance.
“I told our team that we more than likely have to win this tournament to get in,” Berry said. “Losing three consecutive series and two at home and losing to a low RPI team in UAB (hurts the team’s postseason chances).”
Berry is not one to obsess over his team’s RPI ranking. He noted Monday that he hasn’t looked it up since 2015. When informed that his team is ranked No. 56 in the RPI rankings, he acknowledged that his Golden Eagles have their work cut out for them this week in Biloxi.
USM has made it to the postseason before with a similar standing in the RPI, sliding into the NCAA field in 2009 as an at-large with a No. 57 ranking. The Eagles ended up making their first and only run to the College World Series that year.
This year happens to mark the 10th anniversary of that CWS bid and the Eagles will need some similar magic this week to extend their season.
USM (34-19) begins C-USA tournament play at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday against Rice (24-31) at MGM Park. The two teams will play for a chance to take on the winner of the 9 a.m. game — Louisiana Tech (34-22) and Marshall (28-26) — at 4 p.m. on Thursday. The losers of the two games will play in an elimination contest at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Considering USM won the previous two regular season titles, it’s understandable why Berry was less than pleased with his team’s late-season slump that led to a second-place finish. He sets a high bar and this team’s inconsistent play has fallen short of expectations.
The Golden Eagles have a pair of win streaks of eight games or more this year, but the inability to consistently do the small things right has led to some lulls throughout the season.
“I think it’s been a combination of things,” Berry said. “We haven’t played sound defense. We have (78) errors on the year. We also haven’t gotten two-out hits to get momentum back on our side. There have been times out of the bullpen that we haven’t come in and gotten those stops. It’s been a combination of things. You can’t point to one specific area. To win a baseball game, you have to do two of those three things right or all three. We haven’t shown up and done all three things well consistently.”
Redshirt junior right-hander Walker Powell should give USM a chance as the starting pitcher against Rice. He leads C-USA in ERA at 2.69 and has an overall record of 6-2. Coming off a nine-inning performance against UAB, there’s a good chance he goes the distance against the Owls on Wednesday.
Back on May 10 at Rice, Powell got the victory by allowing two runs on seven hits in seven innings.
Powell and junior right fielder Matt Wallner were both named First-Team All-Conference on Tuesday. Junior designated hitter Bryant Bowen, sophomore left fielder Gabe Montenegro and senior first baseman Hunter Slater landed on the second team. Third baseman Danny Lynch earned a spot on the All-Freshman Team.
It’ll be up to Wallner and company to make sure Powell gets more support than the two runs he received in a 3-2, 10-inning loss to UAB on Thursday.
The good news for USM is that Wallner is swinging his best bat of the season. He was 8-of-14 at the plate with four homers and seven RBIs over four games last week to earn C-USA Hitter of the Week honors. He is hitting .315 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs.
“I think he’s been putting together really quality at-bats for some time now,” Berry said. “He’s really, really had a remarkable second half.”
Bowen and Slater have also produced a combined total of 102 RBIs in the middle of the USM lineup, giving the Golden Eagles a chance to slug their way to a tournament title.
“(No. 1 seed) FAU has played better than everybody else with their record (37-18),” Berry said. “But all eight teams are 0-0. Everybody starts back with a clean slate.”
C-USA tournament schedule
Game 1 — (6) Marshall vs. (3) Louisiana Tech, 9 a.m.
Game 2 — (7) Rice vs. (2) Southern Miss, 12:30 p.m.
Game 3 — (8) UTSA vs. (1) Florida Atlantic, 4 p.m.
Game 4 — (5) Old Dominion vs. (4) WKU, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 9 a.m.
Game 6 — Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 12:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 4 p.m.
Game 8 — Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 7:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Winner Game 5 vs. Loser game 7, 3 p.m.
Game 10 — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser game 8, 6:30 p.m.
Game 11 — Winner Game 7 vs. Winner game 9, 9 a.m.
Game 12 — Winner Game 8 vs. Winner game 10, 12:30 p.m.
Game 13 — Same teams as Game 11, 4 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 14 — Same teams as Game 12, 7:30 p.m. (if necessary)
Championship Game, 1 p.m.