The new Alex Box Stadium hasn’t played host to the Southern Miss baseball program since it first opened 10 years ago, but at least one Golden Eagle has toed the rubber at Skip Bertman Field.
USM junior right-hander Hunter Stanley is a Hammond, Louisiana, native who played a summer ball game at the home of LSU baseball during his high school days.
“There will be a ton more fans this time around,” Stanley said Wednesday prior to practice at Pete Taylor Park. “It’s definitely a cool park.”
Southern Miss (38-19) will take on Arizona State (37-17) at noon on Friday in Baton Rouge for a shot to take on the winner of Friday night’s LSU-Stony Brook contest on Saturday.
Stanley often dreamed as a kid of taking the field as a college player at Alex Box Stadium, but he envisioned it in purple and gold.
“I was definitely an LSU fan growing up,” he said. “Honestly, I’m still an LSU football fan when it comes down to it. A lot of my friends go to LSU and they told me they’ll be rooting for me this weekend. Just going down there is going to be really special. That atmosphere will be awesome.
“I definitely had a dream of playing there as a kid, but I’m just so happy to be in this program. It’s going to be awesome.”
Stanley has increasingly become a crucial piece of the USM pitching staff and his performance last week in the Conference USA tournament solidified his standing as the Golden Eagles’ best arm out of the bullpen. He made three appearances and lasted 3 2/3 innings, striking out five and walking none to pick up a pair of saves.
While USM pitching coach Christian Ostrander shies away from putting the closer label on Stanley, head coach Scott Berry wasn’t afraid to tag Stanley on Wednesday.
“Yes, he seems to be our go-to guy there on the back end,” he said.
Stanley has a fastball that ranges from 89-93 miles an hour and he felt like he was popping the glove as hard as he ever has during the C-USA tournament in Biloxi. He has made 27 appearances, all out of the bullpen, and has four saves, leading the team in both categories. In 36 innings, he has 33 strikeouts and seven walks.
Those are all solid numbers for a relief pitcher who had always been a starter in high school and at Meridian Community College.
“It’s definitely taken adjustment,” Stanley said. “Guys told me that I kind of had to figure out how to get a routine going so I could get in a rhythm coming in from the pen.”
If the C-USA tournament is any evidence, Stanley couldn’t be in a better rhythm as he heads to Baton Rouge.
▪ He got out of a no-out, bases loaded jam in the eighth and lasted two innings to close out a 10-5 win over Marshall.
▪ He worked a 1-2-3 ninth to finish off a no-hitter against Rice in the semifinals that included 7 1/3 innings from freshman starter Gabe Shepard and 2/3 of an inning from Cody Carroll.
▪ In the C-USA title game vs. FAU, he entered with one out and men on second and third to get the final two batters out to clinch the championship.
The USM pitching staff hasn’t allowed a run over the last 19 innings and the Eagles will have to keep the momentum rolling against ASU if Stanley and company are to have a shot at LSU.
“I feel like everybody bought into (Ostrander’s) mentality,” Stanley said. “There have been parts of the season where we strayed from that a little, but I think we have a concept of what we want to do. We’ll have to bring that to Baton Rouge.”
Who gets the ball first?
Berry and Ostrander declined Wednesday to reveal who USM’s starting pitcher for Friday’s game, but Berry seemed open to going with Shepard.
“I think what you have to do is look at (the C-USA tournament) where two guys (Walker Powell and Stevie Powers) threw twice that are starters, on short rest,” Berry said. “Certainly that’s a concern. Over the past couple of days, I’ve stressed that the student-athlete’s health is No. 1 and we don’t want to push something too far. Secondly, you have to give your team the best chance to win. The balance between that will lead to the decision that’s made.”
Powell started on Wednesday last week and Powers followed the next day. Both players pitched in Sunday’s 4-0 win over FAU in the C-USA title game. Powell had 148 pitches over 10 1/3 innings last week. Powers, who is battling through shoulder discomfort, tossed 89 pitches over 6 1/3 innings.
If Shepard (2-0, 2.16) does throw on Friday, he will be working on six days of rest. Powell and Powers would both have four days of rest.
In Shepard’s no-hit outing against Rice on Saturday, he threw 91 pitches in 7 1/3 innings. He struck out 12 and walked one.
Arizona State has already announced that junior right-hander Alec Marsh (9-3, 3.17) will be its starter on Friday.