The term “rebuild” has not been used often during Scott Berry’s last 10 seasons as the Southern Miss baseball coach, but it seems appropriate for the 2020 version of the Golden Eagles.
There will be a revamped lineup and a new playing surface at Pete Taylor Park when the new season begins in the middle of February. Work crews started this week with the process removing the natural grass surface from the field.
Next up will be the installation of artificial turf at Pete Taylor Park, finishing off a $1.3 million project that will help avoid postponed games and practices.
“This is something I’ve been awaiting for a while,” Berry said Tuesday. “To see it become a reality, I’m as excited about it as I’ve been about any project we’ve had here.”
USM wrapped up fall practice on Sunday at Alabama, losing the first scrimmage 10-1 before rebounding for a 5-4 win in the second in Tuscaloosa. The week prior, USM easily took a pair of scrimmage victories over crosstown NAIA program William Carey in Hattiesburg.
While Berry admits there is plenty left to work on after the close of fall practice, he likes what he has seen out of his group.
“This is the hardest working group I’ve had in the 20 years that I’ve been here,” he said. “I don’t know how good we’re going to be, but these guys showed up and worked every day. There wasn’t a day I walked away where I felt like it was a wasted day. I really feel like the guys came together and held each other accountable. They came out and worked their rears off the whole fall.”
Southern Miss, which is coming off a 40-21 season, is on a four-year run that has produced three Conference USA tournament titles and two C-USA regular season championships.
USM had at least one player earn All-American honors in each of those season four seasons, including Dylan Burdeaux, Matt Wallner, Luke Reynolds, Nick Sandlin and Taylor Braley.
While sophomore right-hander Gabe Shepard has generated plenty of buzz after going 3-0 with a 2.35 ERA in 11 appearances a year ago, there are no sure-fire All-Americans on this year’s roster.
Talented group of arms
The strength of the 2019 team is expected to be a Shepard-led pitching staff that has depth in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. Shepard should take on the the staff ace and 6-foot-7 redshirt senior Walker Powell offers tons of experience as the No. 2 man. Berry mentioned true freshman Chandler Best and senior Josh Lewis as two left-handed options to serve as the other weekend starter.
Shepard’s fastball touched 98 miles per hour during the fall, but he wasn’t quite as dominant as he was when he pitched the majority of a no-hitter against Rice in the C-USA tournament in Biloxi or beat Arizona State in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional.
“His last three starts (in 2019) were as consistently as good as anybody we’ve had,” Berry said. “He didn’t pitch during the summer so he was a little rusty. We worked him back slow. His velocity was up there. He touched 98 and he showed a good breaking ball. His command was a little off so he’s got to improve that. He’s got to fill up the zone, but I’m not worried about that because I know that he can. We know people will be here to see him much like Sandlin and Wallner because he is a power arm. He’s got to understand that control is crucial.”
Senior right-hander Hunter Stanley, who played the role of closer late last season, returns to lead a bullpen that’s not lacking in options.
“He has been one of the most consistent pitchers we’ve had in a long time,” Berry said of Stanley. “He had a good fall for us. We’ll count on him at the back end of games.”
A pair of lefties, senior Sean Tweedy and redshirt sophomore Ryan Och, sat out most of the fall, but they’ll have large roles to play as relievers. Berry pointed to senior right-hander Alex Nelms, redshirt sophomore lefty Drew Boyd and freshman right-hander Isaiah Rhodes as other options out of the bullpen.
The one bit of bad news coming out of fall camp is senior Cody Carroll, who had a 3.86 ERA in 27 games last year, and redshirt freshman Tyler Stuart have both undergone Tommy John surgery and will not be available to pitch this season.
Berry is confident that he has the arms in place on the pitching staff, but there are questions to be answered at the plate and in the field.
The starting lineup for Sunday’s scrimmage at Alabama could give us a glimpse of what to expect for the season opener:
1. Gabe Montenegro — center field.
2. Matthew Guidry — second base.
3. Danny Lynch — third base.
4. Will McGillis — first base.
5. Fisher Norris — right field.
6. Charlie Fischer — left field.
7. Austen Izzio — designated hitter.
8. Brian Davis — catcher.
9. Dustin Dickerson — shortstop.
Guidry, who hit .297 with eight homers and 47 RBIs as the team’s top returning power bat, is the only player who is in the same defensive position and lineup spot from a year ago.
After playing both left and center during fall scrimmages, Montenegro may shift to center to allow Berry to put his best bets in the lineup. The Guatemalan showed last year that he could be the next centerpiece of the USM offense after finishing with a team-leading batting average of .342, six homers, 25 RBIs and 68 runs scored.
Lynch is back as the team’s starting third baseman, but he’ll make a big leap in the lineup after hitting as low as No. 8 in 2019. He hit .296 with two homers and 40 doubles.
After providing dependable defense in 47 starts at shortstop in 2018, McGillis makes the switch to first base. The position change was helped by the emergence of freshman Dustin Dickerson, a West Jones product, at shortstop.
“Dickerson looked very good in the fall,” Berry said. “They both looked good, but Will gives us some athleticism (at first base). We know he can play short, but this allows us to get both of them in the lineup. They can both be difference makers at their positions. Will has been stepping it up offensively to complement his glove in that position.”
Berry also expects Dickerson, who is the son of Philadelphia Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson, to contribute to the pitching staff with a fastball that stays around 88-91 and a good slider.
It’ll likely be up to a couple of young bats if the USM offense is to surpass expectations this season — sophomore Charlie Fischer, who came up with some big hits in the pinch-hitting role early in 2019, and redshirt freshman Fisher Norris, a Seminary native.
“I’ve been very impressed with those two guys,” Berry said. “Fischer certainly has as much power as anybody we’ve ever had. He hits the ball a long way.
“Fisher Norris reminds us of (former USM baseball star Trey Sutton) and what Trey was at that age. You feel like you’re watching Trey Sutton.”
A pair of transfers are USM’s top two options at catcher — Brian Davis (Gordon State in Georgia) and Andrew Stanley (Arkansas).
“Brian has got the edge on Stanley due to his ability to catch and throw really well,” Berry said. “(Davis) will have to improve on his hitting. Stanley is not far behind on defense, and offensively he has a little better approach. They’re both learning about what it takes at this level and what we’re wanting them to do to have us be successful.”
Sophomore outfielder Hunter Leblanc will also factor in for USM this season after hitting .239 with six doubles in 113 at-bats in 2018. Berry mentioned sophomore utility man Austen Izzio (a transfer from Pearl River Community College), freshman infielder Reed Trimble and senior outfielder/RHP Brant Blaylock as also having roles to play.
Trimble suffered a dislocated collar bone that forced him to miss time and Blaylock spent much of the fall recovering from a strained forearm.
USM will have to find different ways to score runs this year with many of their power bats lost to transfer, graduation or the MLB Draft. After hitting 67 home runs as a team last year, the seven returning bats hit a combined 19.
“We’re not going to hit the ball like we have been,” Berry said. “We have to understand who we are and what our identity is. We’ll have to pitch and play defense, and we’re capable of doing that. We’ll really have to grind out some at-bats. We’re not going to sit up there, swing and miss and strikeout. We’re going to play pressure offense. They’ve got to accept the challenge and buy into it.”