Early non-conference play has given the Eagles a chance to gear up for what looks to be a tough road in Conference USA. On Friday night USM (12-6) will host the nationally ranked Rice Owls (12-5) for a weekend tilt at Pete Taylor Park. Heading into this crucial series there are several things we know about the Golden Eagles, and still a few questions that still need to be answered.
Here is what we do know. Southern Miss lost ten lettermen from a season ago, including All-American pitchers Barry Bowden and Tyler Conn (NCAA saves leader a year ago), and USM career hit leader Trey Sutton who helped lead the Eagles to a 42-22 season. Even after losing this type of talent and leadership, Coach Corky Palmer has done a tremendous job of blending the 19 newcomers and redshirt players with returning starters. He certainly has shown an ability to bring players in and get them to buy into the system. With six consecutive NCAA appearances, the Golden Eagles continue to show that they simply reload year after year. In order to make it seven in a row, USM will be counting on seven returning seniors to lead the way.
Fans that watched the team last year knew to expect solid play from some crucial positions that have much needed experience. In senior shortstop Brian Dozier, centerfielder Bo Davis, and third baseman Josh Fields, Coach Palmer has the type of senior leadership to give stability to this line-up, and the offense has certainly exceeded high expectations. Dozier has been superb, hitting a robust .440 in 18 games, and leading the team with 33 hits. He also has an 18 game hitting streak going, and has hit safely in every game this year.
Davis has battled injuries, but is finding his stride just in time and is swinging a hot bat. In fact, Davis in 11 games is hitting .488 and leads the way with 5 home runs. Fields has been on a roll as well, bringing his average up to.318. These seniors along with returning players Michael Ewing, Corey Stevens, Kyle Maxie, Josh Fields, and James Ewing will be counted on heavily throughout the year.
We also know that any questions that existed over the performance of the newcomers have been put to rest in these first few weeks. Corky Palmer knows how to bring in the right players, and he has looked to junior college transfers along with freshman to find guys that have had immediate impact in a big way. Newcomers have not merely filled in gaps; they have emerged as potential candidates for post season awards.
At the front of that list is freshman outfielder Kameron Brunty. Coming to Hattiesburg from Gulf Breeze High School in Pensacola, FL, Brunty has provided offensive pop and steady defensive play in the outfield. His statistics tell the story. After Wednesday's game against Northern Colorado, Brunty is hitting .357 with 70 at-bats. He also leads the team in steals with 5.
Palmer has found plugging in junior college transfers can be an excellent way to reload. Infielder Taylor Walker has stepped in from Northwest CC to hit .347 and is second on the team with 25 hits.
Tyler Koelling, brought in from Meridian CC, has contributed a .292 average in 48 at bats.
Another name that continues to show up big in the box score is Joey Archer, an infielder who transferred from Alabama Southern CC. Archer had a big night against Mississippi State, and is seeing his .317 average continue to rise.
Finally, continue to keep an eye on Travis Graves, catcher from Eastfield CC in Texas. Graves is providing a steady hand behind the plate while hitting .293.
The offense has been pounding out runs and has provided a nice cushion for the pitching staff. In fact, the Eagles have outscored their opponents 23-8 in the first inning of games this year. Once conference play begins, however, runs will be harder to come by and the pitching staff must pitch well to win series. Here is where several questions still remain in what has been an inconsistent start for Eagle hurlers.
Can a Friday night starter emerge from this group that USM can count on to win games? Is there enough depth to last through tough weekend series? Will the bullpen be able to hold up and close the door in the late innings of close conference games?
The names that emerge vying for that #1 starter are Kyle Lindsay, and JR Ballinger. Between the two, Lindsay looks to have the edge with an eye popping 0.45 ERA in 5 appearances, and has a complete game shut-out to add to his resume. Lindsay, a local product from nearby Purvis, earned first team All-American, all-region and all-state honors at Pearl River CC last season. Ballinger will compete for that spot as well. Last year Ballinger earned C-USA all freshman honors, and has continued that success into this season. He is 2-0 with a 2.50 ERA in 4 appearances. Eagle fans are hoping these two can provide a solid one-two punch at the top of the rotation. The next few spots in the rotation are up for grabs as well. Sophomore Todd McInnis leads the team in innings pitched and has a 3.28 ERA. Cody Schlagal and Scott Copeland have also seen time starting and will be counted on to provide depth.
The good news for the bullpen is that USM is 11-0 when leading after 8 innings. However, they are still searching for that go-to guy out of the bullpen that can start the visiting team's bus ride home. Senior Jonathan Johnston and Sophomore Collin Cargill have carried the bulk of the load out of the pen, and both look to be called upon in the final innings to close it out. Lefties Wade Weathers and Jeff Stanley, along with righties Seth Hester and Matt Warren will see plenty of work through the grind of the season. The bullpen needs to provide more consistency and give the offense a chance late in games.
Conference USA is loaded again this season. Year in and year out this revamped conference has sent teams to Omaha. The tough non-conference slate, including a series with top 5 program Cal State Fullerton, should have the team ready for the long haul. The success of USM in conference play will hinge on the pitching staff. If the pitching can gain some consistency and give the offense a chance, Southern Miss will put runs on the board and compete for a conference championship.
If the pitching does not come around, then Southern Miss will continue to experience the highs and lows that have characterized the first few weeks of the season.
The test comes right away with the Rice Owls coming in ready to avenge their only season series lost at home last year to USM. First pitch is set for 6:30 Friday night at beautiful Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg.