Southern Miss

With MLB scouts in tow, USM star rolls into LSU with a hot bat and something to prove

Matt Wallner was frustrated when he walked off the field at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg on March 9.

All had gone according to plan for the Southern Miss baseball team with a three-game sweep of Holy Cross that weekend, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pound right fielder was still having a tough time at the plate to begin the most important season of his baseball career.

With Major League scouts following him closely, Wallner didn’t resemble the player that some publications projected as a first-round pick in this June’s draft.

The native of Forest Lake, Minnesota, was 1-for-9 during the Holy Cross series with his batting average slumping to .239. Through the first 13 games of the season, the greatest slugger in USM history only had two homers and a pair of doubles.

“I just remember going home and realizing I wanted to have fun in baseball again,” Wallner said. “I was really struggling and I wasn’t having as much fun as I had been.”

By the next weekend, Wallner was beginning to turn the corner at the plate. A 3-for-5 night to begin the Conference USA slate at Louisiana Tech helped spark the Golden Eagles to a three-game sweep in Ruston.

Looking back, Wallner admits that the glare of the of the MLB Draft had an impact on his rough start.

“Unfortunately, it did a little bit,” he said. “I kind of pressed a little bit too much and kind of got away from being me. Lately, I’ve just settled down and gotten back to who I am. Lately, (the MLB Draft) has been kind of irrelevant. But I definitely sped up and was out of what my ordinary is.”

He began to hit the ball better starting with the series at Louisiana Tech, but Wallner’s power swing didn’t take off until USM was nearly two months into the season. After hitting three homers through the first 26 games, Wallner has 18 over the last 31.

Wallner set the USM career record for homers with his 54th against UAB in the regular season finale against UAB and he tacked on two more in the Conference USA tournament in Biloxi.

Entering Friday’s noon game against Arizona State (37-17) in the Baton Rouge Regional, Wallner is seeing the ball as well as he has throughout his career at USM. He was named the Conference USA tournament MVP in Biloxi last week, finishing 7-of-16 with a pair of homers and four RBIs.

Wallner, who is hitting .324 with 21 homers and 55 RBIs, also has at least one RBI in seven of the last eight contests and six home runs over the last seven games.

“Yeah, I feel good about it,” he said Wednesday. “I felt good in the conference tournament to help my team win a little bit. Hopefully, we can carry that momentum into the regional. I haven’t been the best hitter in a regional historically, but hopefully I can in this one.”

In 25 at-bats in regional play, Wallner has a .200 batting average with one extra-base hit — a double against Arkansas in Fayetteville last year.

With the potential to face tough pitching from Arizona State and possibly LSU, Wallner will look to erase his past struggles in the postseason and bolster his stock ahead of next week’s MLB Draft.

Against an Arizona State team that leads the nation in homers with 92, Wallner and the rest of the USM lineup will have to find a way to produce at Alex Box Stadium on Friday.

The Golden Eagles (38-19) enter the tournament with the wind at their backs after claiming their second consecutive C-USA tournament title and Wallner’s walk-off home run in the 10th to beat Rice in USM’s opener of the C-USA tourney served as a rallying point for the entire team.

“There’s been a change in attitude and we just have to keep going through the regional,” Wallner said. “It’s a new week. The conference tournament is behind us now. We just have to go forth using that same momentum. We can’t look past Arizona State or anyone in the regional.”

Shepard gets the start

Southern Miss will go with freshman right-hander Gabe Shepard in Friday’s noon game against Arizona State at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Shepard threw the first 7 1/3 innings of a no-hitter against Rice on Saturday and had six days of rest, two more than USM’s other two starters that threw in Sunday’s C-USA title game – Walker Powell and Stevie Powers.

Shepard said Wednesday that he feels healthy coming off Saturday’s start and 13 months removed from Tommy John Surgery.

“I feel really well,” the Mobile native said. “My arm is 100 percent back healed. I used to have to warm up really long to get feeling right. Now I just grab a ball and go out and do things.”

Shepard (2-0, 2.16) is averaging 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings this season.

Shepard will face an Arizona State team that leads the nation in homers with 92, but he’s determined to not let the gaudy stats impact the way he pitches.

“You face quality batters all the time,” he said. “Baseball has a lot of numbers in it and there are good numbers for both teams. They have incredible hitters, but as a pitcher you have to go out there with a mindset that nobody can beat you. You can’t be worried that his dude has 20 home runs, he might hit one out on me. You’ve got to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna beat this kid.’ Me and you in the box. If he does it, he does it. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. That’s the way I look at it.”

Arizona State will start right-hander Alec Marsh (9-3, 3.17).

Regional bracket

Friday’s games

Game 1 — No. 3 Southern Miss vs. No. 2 Arizona State, noon (ESPN3)

Game 2 — No. 4 Stony Brook vs. No. 1 LSU, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday’s games

Game 3 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, noon

Game 4 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m.

Sunday’s games

Game 5 — Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2 p.m.

Game 6 — Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 8 p.m.

Monday’s game

Game 7 — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 3 p.m. (if necessary)

Patrick Magee is a sports writer who has covered South Mississippi for much of the last two decades. From Southern Miss to high schools, he stays on top of it all.