Patrick Magee

USM baseball has produced plenty of All-Americans. Are two current Golden Eagles the best yet?

Southern Miss pitcher Nick Sandlin has gone from an All-American closer to an All-American starter.
Southern Miss pitcher Nick Sandlin has gone from an All-American closer to an All-American starter. file

The Southern Miss baseball program features a long list of All-Americans in its history, but you can make a strong case that two current Golden Eagles stand out as the best ever.

With a second consecutive Conference USA regular season title in the books for Southern Miss, it's worth taking the time to recognize that fans are witnessing the heyday of Golden Eagle baseball.

USM (37-15, 21-8) clinched the C-USA title on Thursday with a 10-2 victory over Marshall in Beckley, West Virginia.

Since winning the C-USA tournament title in 2016, USM has claimed at least one type of conference championship in each of the last three seasons.

USM will carry the No. 1 seed into the Conference USA tournament at MGM Park in Biloxi this upcoming week. The Eagles will play their tourney opener at 4 p.m. on Wednesday against the No. 8 seed.

If the Golden Eagles win the C-USA tournament, it will mark just the second time in program history that the team has won both the tournament and the regular season title in the same year. The only other instance came in 2003.

USM head coach Scott Berry and his staff have significantly improved the talent level on the team over the last three years and I firmly believe that the two best players in program history are on the roster at the moment — junior pitcher Nick Sandlin and sophomore outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner.

In terms of talent and production, few players have been able to do what Wallner and Sandlin have done during their time in Hattiesburg.

The right-hander from Georgia

Sandlin has put together the best year by a pitcher in USM history. There were moments during the season where the right-hander made quality Division I lineups look entirely unworthy.

The Evans, Georgia, native is 8-0 with a 1.25 ERA in 13 games this season. He has 122 strikeouts and only 14 walks in 86 1/3 innings. Batters are hitting just .156 against him.

His move this year from All-American closer to sure-fire All-American starter has grabbed the attention of MLB scouts. When the draft takes place next month, he has a good shot to be the the highest drafted Southern Miss pitcher since Bob McCrory was taken in the fourth round by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2003.

Todd McInnis, who was a USM standout from 2007-11, is understandably considered the best pitcher in program history by many fans, but he was never quite as dominant as Sandlin has been during his three years in Hattiesburg.

McInnis had a 3.55 career ERA during a time when runs came in bunches in college baseball. He had a record of 33-16 in 70 games (68 starts).

Sandlin has a career ERA of 1.86 and a record of 21-5 in 68 appearances, only 13 of which are starts. He also has 20 career saves, making him the only USM pitcher with at least 20 wins and 20 saves.

With a 93-mph fastball, a nasty breaking ball and multiple arm angles, Sandlin has been unquestionably been one of the two or three best starting pitchers in the nation this season.

The ideal prospect

As for Wallner, nobody questions that he is the best pro prospect that has ever come through the USM program.

The Minnesota native was rated as the 11th best prospect for the 2019 MLB Draft by Perfect Game before the season started and there has been no sophomore slump. He is hitting .349 with 13 homers and 57 RBIs. He hasn't yet finished his sophomore year and he's only three homers away from joining the top 10 home run hitters in USM history.

While Brian Dozier has built an impressive resume with the Minnesota Twins as the best MLB player to ever come out of USM, he didn't realize his full potential until he was well into his time as a pro.

At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Wallner looks the part and has already shown what it takes to make him a top target for MLB teams in 2019. As a freshman, he hit .336 with 19 homers and 63 RBIs.

Wallner also has made an impact on the mound at USM with eight career saves in 18 appearances out of the bullpen. With a fastball that reaches into the mid 90s, he can't be counted out as a pitching prospect.

With one more year left at USM before one lucky MLB team scoops him up as a junior, Wallner's best season may still be ahead of him.

It's rare when a team likely has the best two players in program history on the same roster, but that's what USM has at the moment.

Fans are likely running out of chances to see Sandlin pitch with the MLB Draft set for June 4-6. That's why it's worth making the trip to MGM Park for the C-USA tournament opener on Wednesday.