Feb. 18, 2008
As the 2007 season ended the Southern Miss baseball team set history for its program by advancing to its fifth consecutive NCAA Regional Tournament. As the 2008 season rolls around the goal is simple, rewrite the history books again and Head Coach Corky Palmer may just have the veteran squad and deep pitching staff to accomplish that goal in the newly renovated Pete Taylor Park.
One thing that is certain for the 2008 Golden Eagles is they will have to fight for every victory, playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation this season. Palmer will depend upon his pitching staff to carry the load with a good mix of veteran guys and solid group of newcomers that look to contribute as well.
"I think this is probably one of the deepest pitching staffs we have had in a long time at Southern Miss," Palmer said "We have five quality starters and five quality relievers that all have the potential to pitch big games for us."
With the NCAA mandating the college baseball schedule nationwide, every team in the nation can open play on February 22, which shortens the season by almost two weeks while still playing the same amount of games. The Golden Eagles will need the depth of the pitching staff this season often playing five games a week.
Southern Miss looks to veteran pitchers Barry Bowden and David Clark to anchor the weekend rotation. Both have excellent stuff and have pitched in big games for the Golden Eagles. Clark was taken in the major league draft last season but chose to come back for his senior year instead. The third spot in the rotation likely will fall to redshirt freshman Todd McInnis, who showed what type of pitcher he can be early last season before suffering an injury.
Junior college transfer Josh Billeaud is no stranger to pitching in big games. While at LSU-Euince, his team won the junior college national championship and look for the hard throwing right-hander to earn a mid-week starting spot or even become a weekend starter if needed. He was taken in the major league draft last year but elected to stay in college.
Brian Leach is another junior college transfer that will contribute to the Golden Eagles starting pitching staff this season. Leach is the hardest thrower on the team and, like Billeaud, he could earn a mid-week starting spot or even earn a weekend starter spot.
The Southern Miss bullpen should be able to come into almost any situation and slam the door shut. Junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Conn and sophomore right-hander J.R. Ballinger will share the closer duties, at least to start the season.
"Both Conn and Ballinger can get the job done as a closer, that is evident by what they accomplished as set-up men last season," Palmer said. "I like the idea of being able to match up hitters left and right with our closers, at least early in the season".
Junior left-handed pitcher Wade Weathers is another junior college transfer that has a very resilient arm. He should be one of the top middle relief guys and could even find himself in a mid-week starters role.
Adding more depth to the bullpen are two sidearm throwers. Jonathan Johnston is a redshirt junior who has been a part of the team here for three seasons and knows how to pitch. Collin Cargill is a redshirt freshman who throws extremely hard from underneath and may be as talented as any player in the bullpen.
"I like having a good mixture of pitchers like we do this season," Palmer added. "The depth of our pitching staff will one of the strengths of this team".
There is a good chance that Southern Miss will pitch well this season and like all Golden Eagle baseball teams of the past they should be able to play solid defense as well.
"I think our defense will be our second strength, behind the pitching staff," said Palmer. "We are very solid in the infield, maybe as good a defensive infield as we have had here in a while".
Returning up the middle in the Golden Eagle infield will be the double play combination of Brian Dozier at shortstop and James Ewing at second base. Dozier has started at shortstop since he set foot on campus two seasons ago. He is the best defensive infielder in Conference USA and was recognized by earning a spot on the preseason All-C-USA Team. Ewing is as solid a second baseman as there is in the conference, he turns the double play very well and covers a lot of ground from his second base position.
Returning at first base will be senior Trey Sutton, who moved to the corner infield spot after beginning his Southern Miss career as a second baseman. Injuries last season prevented Sutton from playing in the middle infield forcing the move to first base. Sutton is healthy again this season but will remain at first base, which is a defensive bonus for the Golden Eagles.
Third base will be a battle up until opening day as to who earns the starting nod. The current leader is senior Chris Matesich, who is a tremendous defensive player but is being pushed hard by junior transfer Josh Fields.
There is also a good battle for the starting spot in left field between Drew Carson, Cory Stevens and Anthony Doss. Carson is a fifth-year senior that has played in a lot of biggames, while both Stevens and Doss have some power. Doss could be the next big power hitter at Southern Miss, even though he is a freshman he has shown a lot of power already. Defensively, Carson is the best of the three, and it could end up in a platoon situation since Doss is a left-handed hitter.
Bo Davis will once again patrol centerfield. He is a fast outfielder that can cover the gaps to take extra bases away with a good arm as well.
Junior Michael Ewing will once again be the starter in right field, he is a solid outfielder with plenty of big-game experience.
The Golden Eagles will look to junior college transfer Kyle Maxie and redshirt senior Keith Winstead to handle the catching duties this season. Both are capable of managing the pitching staff very well.
The main question mark as the Golden Eagles start the 2008 season is at the plate. Southern Miss does not have many proven hitters in C-USA, so Palmer and company are depending on some people to step up and have the type of years they were recruited to have.
Southern Miss will return their leading two hitters from last season in Brian Dozier and All-American Trey Sutton.
Sutton returns to anchor the line up from the three spot this season. He is as good a hitter as any player in the country from the left side and should be the spark that ignites the offense this season. Last season he led the team in average (.368), hits (88), doubles (18), triples (3), total bases (136) and on base percentage (.459).
Dozier hit .339 last season for the Golden Eagles adding in 57 runs, 17 doubles, 113 total bases and led the team with 248 at bats.
Bo Davis is a key to this team, he will be hitting leadoff this season, and has tremendous speed which will be needed to set the table for the rest of the lineup. He tied Sutton last season for the team lead in stolen bases (12).
Michael Ewing is also needs to hit the ball well, hopefully his power numbers can return to where they were his freshman season. He will hit in the middle of the lineup and will need to hit for power. Ewing lead the team last season with 48 RBI.
Trey Cueves should see time as the designated hitter this season, after leading the team in homeruns last season with 10. He has a lot of power, but has to stay away from prolonged slumps. When he is seeing the ball well he is one of the most powerful guys on the team. Also look for Maxie or Winstead to DH when they are not catching.
Redshirt freshman Adam Doleac could figure into the offense as a DH as well, especially against right-handed pitching.
"We are going to be very flexible with our lineup this season, we can move some guys around if we need to, in case of players struggling or injuries," said Palmer.
Once Palmer figures out the lineup, the only task remaining is to go play one of the toughest schedules in the country this season. The Golden Eagles play three teams that advanced to last year's College World Series and 10 teams that played in a NCAA Regional last season.
The Golden Eagles will play at Louisiana-Lafayette, Cal State Fullerton, Rice, New Orleans, and Ole Miss, all teams that played in a NCAA Regional. Cal State Fullerton and Rice advanced to the College World Series.
Southern Miss will host Troy, LSU, East Carolina, Mississippi State and Memphis, who all advanced to a NCAA Regional in 2007. Mississippi State played in the College World Series.
The Golden Eagles will also play against teams that have been regulars in past NCAA regional tournaments such as Tulane, Alabama, South Alabama and Miami (Ohio).
With a challenging schedule like the Golden Eagles are facing, one factor to consider is the RPI. If the Golden Eagles can have decent success, look for the RPI to be pretty good at the end of the season.
"The early part of the season is very demanding with a tough eight-game road streak (at Louisiana-Layafette, Cal State Fullerton, Ole Miss, New Orleans and a neutral site game with Miami (Ohio), I think we can handle this schedule with our veteran leadership," Palmer said.
One thing that the teams visiting Pete Taylor Park will notice this season is the completion of the stadium expansion. The addition of 12 suites and a new press box towers over the grandstands and can compete with any college stadium in the nation.
"The press box and suites have added to our stadium tremendously and gives it a new look," Palmer said. "I know everyone involved is excited and the people coming in here will be able to see the commitment that this University has made to the baseball program".
Future expansion plans are already in the works before the 2009 season with the addition of almost 600 chair back seats down the third-base side.
For Palmer and for the 2008 Golden Eagle baseball team, the future is now and history is ready to be written.