HATTIESBURG — It’s easy to say that somebody has to step up for a team to be successful, but with the Southern Miss baseball pitching staff, more than one somebody has to take some extremely big steps.
Here’s why: The Golden Eagles lost James McMahon, who was 11-1 with a 1.56 earned run average last season, and Christian Talley (3-5, 3.79) to the Colorado Rockies; they lost Cody Carroll (5-5, 3.08 ERA) to the New York Yankees; and they lost Ryan Milton (3.13 ERA, 10 saves) to the Detroit Tigers.
So it seems that USM will be starting from scratch on the mound in its 2016 season opener at 4 p.m. on Friday against Eastern Illinois in Hattiesburg. But that isn’t quite the case.
“We lost some key guys from the starter side,” said pitching coach Michael Federico, who guided the Southern Miss pitching staff to earned run averages of 3.14 in 2015, 3.57 in 2014 and 3.74 in 2013 — all very good numbers. “We have a lot of guys back.
“The thing for us this year is they will be in some new positions.”
That doesn’t mean that pitchers will now play the outfield. It means that someone like Nick Johnson, a reliever last season who had a 4-0 record with a 2.93 ERA, will get a shot to be a starter. It means that someone like Kirk McCarty, a freshman last year (4-1, 4.09 ERA) who started and relieved at times, will be counted on to be a weekend starter this season. It means that someone like Jake Winston (1-0, 2.58), who pitched only in relief a year ago, may be one of the top starters.
“They have to follow what James McMahon and Ryan Milton and Christian Talley and Cody Carroll did and that was get out there and compete,” Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry said. “When you look at those four guys, they were very confident individuals who believed in their abilities when they got on that mound and I think our team fed off that.
“We’ve got to have those guys that when they take the mound, they have the respect of their teammates.”
McCarty, Winston, Cord Cockrell (3-0, 3.37), Johnson, Hunter Stevens and freshman Stevie Powers are in the running to be starters.
Cody Livingston (1-1, 3.93), Luke Lowery (2-4, 3.63) and freshman Nick Sandlin should see plenty of action out of the bullpen.
“We’ve got a guy like Jake Winston, he’s had some starts before but he’s going to be given the opportunity to be a weekend guy,” Federico said. “He was a key, he and Nick Johnson, last year. Our bullpen was like 28-0 if we had the lead going into the sixth inning. So those guys have pitched in traffic and did a great job for us. Now the key is if we can get deep in the games from the starting side of it.”
Federico is high on one of his newcomers.
“We have a freshman named Stevie Powers who I really like,” he said. “He’s going to be a good one. Fans are going to like the way he pitches because he competes, he’s a very tough kid. He has a chance to be a possible starter.”
Johnson definitely won’t start the first weekend due to a shoulder injury, but he is expected to throw in relief.
“It’s nothing big, nothing to call home about,” he said.
But someone else will replace him as a starter.
“The key for us is the first three weeks,” Federico said. “We’ve got five games a week, so we’re going to have to get some people out there on the mound. They’re going to have to figure out some things pretty quick.”
Livingston, a senior, can tell the youngsters a good bit.
“One thing Coach Fed always talked about, he doesn’t want us to walk people, hit by pitches,” Livingston said. “He’s not really worried about the hits. You’re throwing strikes and making competitive pitches. If you’re not throwing strikes, you’re pitching defensive, you’re not competitive. Make them swing the bats, make them earn their way on.”
Strikeouts aren’t as important as runs given up, Federico emphasizes.
“I look at WHIP, which is walks and hits per innings pitched,” the USM pitching coach said. “Our goal is to be under 1.56. It was about 1.3 last year. If you look at it, 1.3 makes for quicker innings. The biggest thing is trying to get strike one and winning the 1-1 count. If we can do those two things, we’re going to have success.”