2016 Baseball Season Preview
By Tim Doherty, Special to SouthernMiss.com
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -
The University of Southern Mississippi baseball team will be carrying a bad attitude into the 2016 season, and with good reason.
After surging down the stretch of the 2015 schedule, winning 14 of its last 16 games, the Golden Eagles were stung when their bid to end a three-year, NCAA Regional drought came up short.
That snub has stayed a burr under Southern Miss' offseason saddle, and with the Feb. 19 opener with Eastern Illinois looming, the Golden Eagles have not needed to dig very deep to delve the motivational well.
"Coach reminds us what happened last year all the time," said senior infielder Nick Dawson, who is expected to be one of the team's veteran leaders. "He does remind us a lot, and I feel like we have a little chip on our shoulder about it.
"We just want to start fast this year, and don't give (selection committee members) anything to think about in the end."
Southern Miss (36-18-1) posted quality wins with sweeps of Ole Miss, Tulane and South Alabama and wins over Tulane, Mississippi State, Alabama and Rice.
But the Golden Eagles did themselves no favors early, dropping a mid-weeker to New Orleans and failing to win a game at a tournament in Pensacola, Florida, before losing two of three games to visiting Oakland. After its first 17 games, Southern Miss stood just two games above .500 at 9-7-1.
"You look at last season, and if maybe we can win another game or two early on, maybe we could have gotten in (the NCAAs)," said senior first baseman Tim Lynch, a first-team All-Conference USA preseason selection. "People say that we were the last team off the board, so not winning just one more game - early, late, whenever - that could be the difference.
"You can't afford to lose games like that, especially at home because of how weighted it is with the (Ratings Percentage Index). It's so much more important to win at home."
That's why Berry and his assistants - pitching coach Michael Federico, hitting coach Chad Caillet and first-year volunteer assistant B.A. Vollmuth - have not only been preaching a fast start but more consistent results.
"With any competitor, there's pressure, because you're trying to win," said Berry, who will be in his seventh year at the Golden Eagles' helm. "Hey, when you've been absent four years and you're used to going (to a regional), nine straight, certainly there's that sense of urgency to get us back in there.
"That's what was so disappointing about last year. We really deserved to be there. We were a football team that was bowl eligible and didn't receive a bowl. Unfortunately, it is what is, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, our coaches' mouths and those (players) who are returning. "
Southern Miss not only welcomes back a bevy of players with starting experience, but are expecting major contributions from newcomers as well.
"I really think through the fall and the spring, the older guys and the younger guys have meshed and come together," Berry said. "These guys seem to have become a close unit at this point, from August until now, and hopefully, they'll continue to grow, and push one another and pull for one another."
Dawson and Lynch will be two of the mainstays returning to Southern Miss' starting lineup, though exactly where the former will play remains one of unanswered questions of the spring.
The departure of Michael Sterling took 52 starts at shortstop from the Golden Eagles. Dawson, the starting second baseman for the bulk of the past three seasons, has spent much of the offseason at across the infield.
"I played short in high school and a little bit in summer ball, so I'm good there or at second," Dawson said. "But I don't know yet."
Junior college signee Tracy Hadley and true freshman Storme Cooper have been in the spring mix at short as well.
Hadley has the tools to be a top-notch, top-of-the-order platesetter, while Cooper has shown a penchant for handling a pitch and spraying the ball to all fields.
If Dawson moves to short, senior Chase Scott appears to be the prime candidate to move from second. Scott, who combined for 42 starts between left field, third base and first base last season, put together a 21-game hitting streak that helped him hit .288. He is one of two returning Golden Eagles who logged at least 30 runs scored and 30 runs batted in.
Lynch is the other. He is the returning leader in batting average (.313), home run (9), runs (38) and RBIs (32).
Southern Miss also should be set at third base, where Freshman All-American Taylor Braley returns. Braley hit .286 with 25 RBIs, 11 doubles, three home runs and 25 runs in 2015.
The Golden Eagles lost Austin Roussel, who started 34 game behind the plate last spring, as well as designated hitter Matt Durst, who led the Golden Eagles with a ,314 batting average, 65 hits and 32 RBIs.
But junior Chuckie Robinson returns with 21 starts at catcher, and JuCo transfer Claudio Ruberia has been impressive behind the plate and in the batter's box this spring.
The outfield lost Connor Barron and his team-best 40 runs as well eight home runs and 31 RBIs.
But both Scott and junior right fielder Dylan Burdeaux (.283, 34 runs, 28 RBIs, 10 doubles) return, while Georgia College All-American Jake Sandlin is the leading candidate to take over in center field.
But Sandlin (bruised knee) and Burdeaux (left thumb) have missed time in the spring, though Berry said he's hopeful that both will be back by opening day. Sandlin has been hitting the past week, though not playing the field, while Burdeaux has been sidelined after gashing his thumb while sliding into a base.
That's meant more intrasquad innings for senior Michael Gilbert, sophomore Daniel Keating and freshman Hunter Slater.
"The injury bug is hitting us a little bit, so that's kind of disrupting a little bit what we're trying to do with some key people who we're counting on," Berry said. "But on the other hand, it's giving us an opportunity to build that depth that you have to prepare for if it happens during the season."
Southern Miss also has to replace a good part of its pitching staff from a year ago. Four players - starters James McMahon, Cody Carroll and Christian Talley and closer Ryan Milton - combined to make 39 of the Golden Eagles' 55 starts, post 20 of the team's 38 wins and account for 54.7 percent of the innings pitched in 2015. Milton and Talley combined for 11 of the squad's 15 saves, while McMahon was named C-USA pitcher of the year and second-team All-America.
But senior right-hander Jake Winston, who holds a team-best 2.58 earned run average among the returning staff, is expected to move from the bullpen to the starting rotation. He is expected to join left-hander Kirk McCarty (4-1, 4.09 ERA) among the top six starting candidates.
Others in the mix include senior right-hander Cord Cockrell, a former Louisiana-Lafayette transfer who logged wins over Ole Miss, Alabama and Tulane last season, and senior Nick Johnson, who was shut down this spring with a tender shoulder but is expected to resume throwing soon.
Two newcomers, junior right-hander Hunter Stevens and freshman left-hander Stevie Powers, also are among the starting possibilities.
Sandlin's younger brother, freshman right-hander Nick Sandlin, is the top candidate to take on Milton's role at the back of the bullpen.
Berry said some decisions will be influenced over the remaining practices and intrasquads.
"We'll get two more looks at these guys before our opener and that will be critical I think," Berry said. Through the spring, Southern Miss' hitters "have been ahead of our pitching, no doubt, so I don't know if that's a good thing or if that says something about our pitching," Berry said. "But that's why when you get to this point, you're ready to play somebody else, if just from the mere fact that you are tired of seeing them compete against the same guys."
Lynch said the offense wants to take that offensive aggressiveness into the season.
"We've got a lot of guys with some power this year who can hit the ball," Lynch said. "What we're trying to do is make the job on our pitchers easier. We want to score as much as possible so that makes the job easier on them, and the way that we're swinging it right now in practice, we're really confident with everything that we are doing.
"So, why can't we score seven, eight runs a game? There's no limit that says you're only allowed to score five a game. So, why can't we average seven, eight (runs) a game and make their lives very easy?"