If the Southern Miss baseball team is going to host its second consecutive NCAA regional, it will have to thread the needle with little room for error over the final two months of the season.
The Golden Eagles improved to 18-6 overall and 5-1 in Conference USA play with a 12-1 trouncing of Rice on Friday night at Pete Taylor Park. The victory puts USM in first place by itself, one spot ahead of Louisiana Tech (22-8, 7-2).
Rice clinched its 23rd consecutive postseason bid last year after rallying to win the C-USA Tournament in Biloxi, but these are not Wayne Graham's Owls of old with a record of 11-17 and 1-6.
Graham, who turns 82 on April 6, has been the head coach at Rice since 1992, when the school was still a member of the now-defunct Southwest Conference. He has led the program to seven College World Series bids and the 2003 national title.
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A series victory over Rice was once an impressive item on your postseason resume, but that's no longer the case. Five Rice pitchers combined Friday to walk an astonishing 14 Golden Eagles, including six consecutive walks in the eighth inning.
Rice overcame a miserable start last year, but it's difficult to see a similar turnaround this season.
USM is again a very good team, but Conference USA seems to be in a down year. The conference doesn't feature much depth outside of the Golden Eagles, FAU and La. Tech.
At the moment, Southern Miss can only point to last week's 2-of-3 series win at FAU as a major resume booster. FAU (17-8, 3-3) is ranked No. 20 in RPI and should finish in the top two or three teams in the conference.
Southern Miss left Friday night's win with an RPI ranking of No. 26, according to WarrenNolan.com.
One drag on USM's RPI is Mississippi State's underwhelming performance so far. The Bulldogs were swept in Hattiesburg in the season-opening series and are off to a 14-14 start with an RPI ranking of No. 88.
Another problem for USM is the lack of top 100 RPI opponents remaining on the schedule – No. 7 Ole Miss, No. 51 South Alabama and three games against No. 72 Louisiana Tech. USM probably needs to win four of the five remaining games against those teams to have an RPI ranking in the top 20.
The only safe way for USM to land a regional host is to cruise to a regular season championship and claim the C-USA tournament title at MGM Park in Biloxi
USM needs to be in the top 20 in RPI at the end of the season to have a good shot at hosting and be among the top 14 teams to safely bring a regional to Hattiesburg.
In good position
The pieces are in place for the Golden Eagles to make a strong run to close out the season.
Nick Sandlin is in the middle of the one of the best seasons any pitcher has had at USM with a 4-0 record and an ERA of 1.31. With 13 strikeouts and no walks in eight innings on Friday, Sandlin now has 73 strikeouts and only six walks in 48 innings.
Matt Wallner, who was 3-for-4 on Friday, is finding his power again at the plate, and he's the centerpiece of the best 3-4-5 combination in Conference USA with Luke Reynolds in the three-hole and Hunter Slater swinging a hot bat out of the No. 5 spot.
The three players have combined for 17 homers and 73 RBIs.
“We're right up there with anyone in the country,” Wallner said. “Maybe the only disadvantage is having three lefties, but that's about it. I trust each and every one of us. I'm confident any of us can to do it anytime.”
The only question mark at the moment is the bullpen, but the return of right-hander Trent Driver should provide a lift.
USM should be in the regional host discussion for a while, but there's no easy path to bring June baseball back to Pete Taylor Park.