Baseball Looking to Finish Strong over Final Two Weekends of Regular Season
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -
The 2016 preseason mantra for Southern Miss was avoiding the kind of slow start to the schedule that likely cost it a slot in college baseball's 2015 postseason.
The Golden Eagles have done that, and then some, not only soaring from their aerie to collect 15 wins in its first 19 games, but they've kept the pedal to the metal all season.
"We really haven't had that slump, not more than two games, I think, and that's not been more than a couple times," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "We've played good, consistent baseball so far this year."
As a result, Southern Miss (34-14) not only has its most wins at this point in a season since 2011, but will be playing its most important games of the regular season at the end of its schedule.
With seven regular-season games left and heading into the final home series with Louisiana Tech (32-14 heading into Wednesday's night game with Northwestern State) at Pete Taylor Park this weekend, the Golden Eagles not only have their eyes on a Conference USA regular-season championship, but the possibility of not only making but hosting a NCAA regional.
"At the start of the season, everybody said, `We want to get back,'" center fielder Jake Sandlin said this past weekend after Southern Miss swept WKU to remain tied atop the C-USA standings. "We're so far past that because we're going to get back. Now, we want to do something more. We want to host."
While hosting may have sounded presumptuous in January for a program that had last reached the national postseason in 2011, the numbers in May support just such a possibility.
The Golden Eagles, who have won their last four games, are among four schools - including No. 18 Rice (31-14), Florida Atlantic (33-13) and Marshall (27-17) - already guaranteed spots in the eight-team C-USA Baseball Tournament, which will be played May 25-29 in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss, ranked 16th nationally by Collegiate Baseball, holds the highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) among C-USA's dozen teams at No. 18, and is tied at 18-6 atop the C-USA standings with Rice with two conference series left to play.
The Golden Eagles' penultimate regular-series begins Friday with a visit from the Bulldogs, who have won four in a row and stand fifth in the C-USA standings at 15-9.
Sandlin is among 14 seniors who will be recognized prior to Saturday's 2 p.m. ballgame. Also being honored are first baseman Tim Lynch, shortstop Nick Dawson, outfielder Chase Scott, infielder/outfielder Michael Gilbert and pitchers Cord Cockrell, Nick Johnson, Jake Winston, Luke Lowery, Cody Livingston, Clay Tageant, Connor O'Brien and Bryan Coughlin and student manager John Bullock.
Berry said guidance from the veterans has been crucial to the team's success.
"There's no doubt that the seniors bridge the gap with the new guys, whether that be the freshmen or the junior college transfers, trying to establish the team mindset that we want every year," Berry said. "That has to start with your older guys. You can't expect your younger guys who have never been at this level or the newer guys who have never been at this level to come in and give you the leadership you want. It's got to be from those who have invested in the program and now, really want something out of it their last year."
That mindset has helped the Golden Eagles overcome a rash of injuries, including starting third baseman Taylor Braley (knee), ace pitcher Cockrell (shoulder) and veteran reliever Livingston (arm).
"You hope the injury bug never hits you, but when it hits you, there's nothing you can do about it but expect the person next in line to step up for you, and that's what we're going to call upon, again, this weekend," Berry said. "We've had different tests and scenarios during the year with (injuries), but I think here at the end, somebody else is going to have step that hadn't been called upon in that role.
"It is what it is, and you can dwell on it or you can look it in the eye, accept the challenge and move forward, and that's what we are going to do."
Cockrell's late-season issue merely compounds an on-going juggling of the weekend rotation. Both Winston and Johnson had Saturday stints during the season, but have come out of the bullpen.
A second consecutive start Saturday by sophomore Kirk McCarty is a likely probability. McCarty (5-0, 2.81 ERA) moved up a day from his normal Sunday slot when he faced WKU last weekend.
Also, freshman Walker Powell was effective Sunday against the Hilltoppers in his first collegiate start and could be in the weekend mix again.
While Berry said he and his staff still were sifting through their weekend options, he acknowledged that veterans like Winston and Johnson will be critical down the stretch.
"Their presence is going to be huge in whatever role they appear," he said.
As will the role of the crowds that continue to pack Pete Taylor Park, a role that Berry and the Golden Eagles are expecting to be repeated for the final home series of the year.
"The crowds have been outstanding this year and our team has played very well with those crowds behind them, so I hope everybody comes out," Berry said "I think, certainly, we as a program have put a product on the field that everybody is proud of and enjoys coming to watch.
"People say, `Well, if you want people to come out, you've got to win,' and we've done that. On the other hand, I think you have to put people out there that are fun to watch, and this group is one of those. It's a team that everybody has a good feeling about, and certainly it starts with the seniors.
"But, more importantly, this team will only be together for a few more weeks and then the older guys will go one way and the new regime will come in, so I hope everybody comes and really supports us this weekend."