2007 Southern Miss Baseball Preview
Feb. 1, 2007
Over the last four seasons, the Southern Miss Golden Eagle Baseball team entered the preseason campaign with several goals in mind. There were the goals of gaining 40 wins per season and winning both the regular season and tournament crowns in Conference USA. There were the goals of becoming a dominant team, as well as being successful during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
But among the top of those goals was not only being successful in terms of wins and losses, but also to become a program that makes it to postseason play on a consistent basis. For in the eyes of Head Coach Corky Palmer, just making it to the postseason every few years wasn't enough. It would take consistent NCAA Regional bids to show that there was indeed a winning tradition at Southern Miss.
After a 39-23 record and an unprecedented fourth-straight postseason tournament appearance last season, one can be sure that a winning tradition has indeed been cultivated for the Golden Eagles. But while that winning tradition has been created, in order to become a perennial power, Palmer and company know that they'll have to raise the stakes a little bit higher. While making it to another postseason appearance will remain among the achievements hoped for, advancing past the regional tournament and into a Super Regional is now the target of choice.
"To me, high expectations are among the things we talk about each year," Palmer said. "We want to go further. Going to four regionals is a great thing, but you would also like to take the next step."
Armed with a team that boasts 18 returning lettermen, including five starting position players from a year ago, Palmer and company have set their sights on making it to the next level.
Heading into his 10th season at the helm of the program, however, Palmer knows that the team will have to work that much harder to attain the preseason goals that they want to accomplish.
"Some things will have to go right for us, but that is why you play the game," Palmer said. "Our kids know what's needed because over these last few years, we built the tradition. Even though you make a regional, you also want to make it to the next level. You see teams advance across the country. That's a goal here, as well, and it has to be. Once your goal is met to gain tradition, which we have by getting to four regionals, you have to start shooting for the other goal of making it to the next level."
The 2007 Golden Eagles will once again learn early on what it takes to make it to the next level. While Southern Miss will compete in one of the toughest conferences in the nation for Division I baseball, the team also will go through a non-conference schedule that includes perennial powers Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Combine that with a conference schedule that includes powers Houston, Rice and Tulane, the 2007 schedule is sure to be a demanding one. In fact, the schedule features eight NCAA Tournament teams from last year (Alabama, Houston, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Rice, South Alabama, Troy and Tulane), three Super Regional teams (Alabama, Ole Miss, Rice) and one College World Series team (Rice).
"The schedule is very demanding," Palmer said. "It's probably the best we have ever played here. It's a good schedule top to bottom. Years ago, we might have shied off having a schedule this tough. But you have to keep pushing forward, and that is what we have done on the field and did with the schedule so we can advance."
Playing in league action also won't be just a regular day in the park. In the second-year of playing in the recently aligned C-USA, the Golden Eagles will have their work cut out for them. With 2006 World Series participant Rice, along with the likes of Houston, Tulane and East Carolina, the league will once again be tough.
"It's no worse than the fifth-best conference in the nation, with possibility of being the fourth-best," Palmer said. "Rice is a perennial top 10 team. Tulane is good. East Carolina will come back strong, along with us and Houston. The sleeper will be Memphis who has every starter back from a good team.
"It's going to be a tough league all around," Palmer added. "It will be demanding. The good thing is that we have Rice and Tulane at home. That's big."
In all, Southern Miss will have 30 home games on the slate. While it's always beneficial to have a good number of home contests, the fact that Pete Taylor Park has become a tough place to play in recent years makes the heavy home schedule even better.
"Our place has become a hard place to play," Palmer said. "It has become harder in recent years. We have a tremendous crowd and excitement. That has helped our program as well. It helps you on the field. Our fans have really gotten into it. So it has been a good situation."
While success has now become more than just an expectation, the Golden Eagles will be put to the test in 2007. Not only will the team be playing in one of the tougher leagues in the nation and in a harder-than-usual non-conference slate, but it will be doing so without one big factor - experience. With just 17 upperclassmen on the roster, experience - and the leadership that goes along with it - will have to be built up quickly.
"We are very young," Palmer said. "It's kind of a sophomore oriented team as far as position players, and I think the main thing is that we are going to have to look for leadership. In the last four years, we have had guys who have kept taking on that role. We have some guys capable, but they haven't had to do that yet.
"But I do think our sophomore class is tremendous, and it is as good as it gets. That's going to be a big key - where is the leadership going to come from. I am anxious to see that. But the one thing that we have and that these guys have been a part of is tradition. When you go to four regionals in a row, you have the tradition. And I think that will evolve when someone steps into the leadership role."
Once again, the unquestioned strength of the Golden Eagle squad will be its ability on the offensive side of the plate. With six of the top nine hitters returning this season, along with the solid credentials of another outstanding transfer, good hitting will be expected.
"We have a good hitting team," Palmer said. "We will hit for average, and we will hit for power. We should have a good offensive team. We don't run that great, but I have never been a big running coach. We are going to swing the bat. We have a good mix of lefties and righties throughout our lineup, and I feel good about it."
While some teams either excel at the long ball or at manufacturing runs, the 2007 Golden Eagle offense should be able to do well in both areas.
"We do a good job because we are prepared to go either way on offense," Palmer said. "If we have to hit and run or hit for power, drag bunt, we have the guys to do that. We have the whole package in, and I feel good about our offense. I'm not sure if we will be as powerful as we have been, but we will hit because we hit very good this fall. We should be a good hitting team."
To go along with the solid turns at the plate, the team also should have a strong defense that is highlighted by one of the top infields in the league according to Palmer.
"I feel good about our entire infield," Palmer said. "Our infield kind of reminds me of the one we had in 2002, early in the run. We have good players who know the game. This infield we have is really good - both offensively and defensively."
While hitting and defense will be among the strengths for this year's squad, there are some questions that need to be answered when it comes to pitching - primarily in regards to relief pitching.
"Pitching is a big question mark, especially with our relief corps," Palmer said. "We have had four years of great closers, and I can't tell you today who our closer is going to be this year. We have had years with good middle relievers, but I can't tell you who will be in that position. Our starting pitching will be okay. But it's been through the seventh through the ninth (innings) that we have won a lot of big games in the last four years, and that is still up in the air. That has got me concerned, and I think it's going to be trial and error as to who will have those jobs through the first 10-15 games. I just don't think that right now we have a guy who can go out there and be our closer or middle reliever, we'll just have to see."
One new face will be in the catcher's slot, as redshirt-senior Eddie Burger and freshman Chance Harst look to fill the void left by Coker's graduation. The proven emotional leader of last season's group, Coker also fared well at the plate, finishing with a .308 batting average with 61 hits and five home runs.
The early front-runner for the position, Burger, will look to improve on his injury-plagued career. After missing all of 2006 because of injury, Burger has played in just 29 career games and registered three career starts. Harst, one of the few true freshman position players who Palmer expects to make an impact, enters the spring in a battle with Burger for the starting position.
Harst, who has above-average defensive skills and an excellent throwing arm, hit .470 with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs as a senior last year at Thomas More High School in Lafayette, La., the same high school as former Golden Eagles standout Beau Griffin. He finished as a two-time all-state performer and was drafted by Kansas City in the 37th round.
Redshirt-juniors Trey Cuevas and Keith Winstead also add depth at the position. Cuevas competed in 38 games last season, starting 23 of them with a .240 batting average, including seven home runs and 22 RBIs. Winstead sat out last season after transferring from Pearl River Community College.
Michael Ewing returns at his post at first base for 2007. A Freshman All-American and a member of the Conference USA All-Freshman team from a season ago, Ewing finished with a .313 batting average, with eight home runs and 41 RBIs. The Beaumont, Texas, native led the team with 15 doubles and 33 walks.
Sutton, who was last season's offensive leader, anchors the infield with his third-season as the starter at second base. A two-time All-Conference USA selection in 2006, Sutton finished the year with a team-best .375 batting average, including 90 hits, 14 doubles, four home runs and 32 RBIs.
Dozier, another Freshman All-American from a season ago, returns as the starter at shortstop, a position he secured last season. As a freshman, Dozier finished the season with a .368 batting average, second on the team, adding 77 hits, eight doubles, three home runs and 39 RBIs.
Third base also will have a new face in 2007, following the loss of senior All-American Marc Maddox. Maddox was a second-team selection to the All-South Region team, a first-team All-Conference USA honoree, the Conference USA Scholar Athlete of the Year, as well as being named a first-team ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American. He hit .313 with seven doubles, two triples, 18 home runs and 70 RBIs. Maddox scored 61 runs, walked 32 times and stole a team-high 14 bases. He was drafted as the first pick of the ninth round by the Kansas City Royals and left Southern Miss holding six career offensive records.
Taking over for Maddox at third base will be sophomore transfer James Ewing - the twin brother of Michael. As a freshman second baseman at Arkansas last season, James Ewing hit .366 with 12 doubles and 22 RBIs, while also posting a team-high .439 on-base percentage and two stolen bases.
While the starters are pretty much locked in for the infield, there are two players who should see time on the field. Senior Bailey Hartel and redshirt-junior Chris Matesich are two players with whom Palmer is confident could step in without missing a beat. Last season, Hartel finished with a .263 batting average and had 15 hits and 12 RBIs, competing in 30 games with 16 starts in his first season after transferring from Pearl River Community College.
Matesich played in 21 games in 2006, finishing with 12 putouts and 14 assists. In 2005, he played in 61 games and started 59, hitting .272 with 14 doubles, two triples, two home runs and 24 RBIs. Matesich also finished with 21 walks, was hit 13 times and was second on the team with 12 stolen bases.
Also looking to add to the mix and compete for playing time is freshman first baseman Adam Doleac.
In left field, sophomore Luke Adkins and redshirt-junior Drew Carson will platoon at the position, with the other most-likely serving as the designated hitter. Another Freshman All-American from last season, Adkins played in 53 games and registered 42 starts in the outfield and as the designated hitter. He finished with a .286 batting average, adding nine doubles, 50 hits, eight home runs and 43 RBIs. Carson played in 40 games and saw 20 starts, hitting .317 on the season, while also adding four doubles, five home runs and 18 RBIs.
Not only will Johnson's presence be missed in center field, but his offensive production also will need to be replaced. Johnson, a first-team All-Conference USA performer, was a finalist for the Cellular South Boo Ferris Trophy, signifying the top player in the state of Mississippi. The NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional All-Tournament selection finished with a .363 batting average with 10 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs and 52 RBIs. He finished with a team-high 143 total bases and had a .552 slugging percentage and a .444 on-base percentage.
Redshirt-sophomore Bo Davis is slated as the starter at center field, after serving as the backup in center last season, while also playing first base. Davis competed in 52 games and saw 33 starts in 2006, finishing with a .248 batting average with 34 hits, one home run and 20 RBIs.
In right field, Jody Blount returns as the starter for the third year in a row. In 2006, Blount had a .294 batting average, starting in 59 of 60 games played. He also had 64 hits, with eight doubles, 10 home runs and 47 RBIs.
Redshirt-freshman Jeremy Davis is expected to be the backup in the outfield. Sitting out 2006 to gain experience in the college ranks, Davis was a three-time first-team all-state selection at Cathedral Prep in Natchez, Miss. He hit .500 with 13 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 47 RBIs as a senior last year in helping Cathedral Prep to a 25-7 record and an appearance in the second round of the state playoffs.
Russum finished second on the team last season with 54 strikeouts in a team-best 93.2 innings pitched. The fifth-year senior reeled off an 8-6 record with a 4.23 ERA, while walking 40 and allowing a .246 opposing batting average. Massey followed with a 6-3 record and a 5.58 ERA in 69.1 innings pitched with 39 strikeouts, 24 walks and an opposing batting average of .306. The two players combined to start 28 games overall, leading the team with 16 and 12 starts, respectively.
While the stalwarts of the starting rotation from a year ago are gone, Palmer is confident in the starting rotation for 2006, as last season's strikeout leader Ryan Belanger returns for his senior season, to go along with redshirt-juniors Barry Bowden and David Clark.
Belanger is penciled in as the Friday night starter in the weekend rotation, back to reclaim his spot as one of the top pitchers from a season ago. Playing in his first season after transferring from Copiah Lincoln Community College, Belanger had a strong 2006 campaign. He appeared in 24 games in 2006, finishing with an 8-3 overall record in 66 innings pitched. Belanger also registered 62 strikeouts and 24 walks, while opponents had a .312 batting average against him.
Bowden enters the season as the Saturday starter and is the lone returning pitcher with more than 10 starts from a season ago. In 2006, Bowden made 13 appearances, 11 of them starts, and finished with a 4.37 ERA and a 3-2 overall record. He also fanned 48 batters and walked 30 with a .261 opponent batting average.
Clark emerges as the Sunday starter and was used most of the 2006 campaign as one of the weekend starters. On the season, Clark made 13 appearances with nine starts, with six of the starts coming in league play. The redshirt-junior finished with a 3-2 record in 50.0 innings pitched, with a 6.66 ERA and 45 strikeouts and 27 walks.
In addition to the weekend starters, a pair of freshmen Todd McInnis and Jared Cavenaugh, should factor into the starting rotation. McInnis, who prepped at Northwest Rankin High School in Brandon, Miss., should serve as the midweek starter, while Cavenaugh, out of Newton County High School in Chunky, Miss., may push for time in the bullpen.
McInnis, named "Mr. Baseball" in Mississippi by The Clarion Ledger, finished with a 10-1 record with a 1.25 ERA with 120 strikeouts as a senior last season at Northwest Rankin High School in Brandon, Miss. He was a two-time all-state selection and helped Northwest Rankin to the state championship as a junior.
Cavenaugh, a member of The Clarion Ledger's "Dandy Dozen", finished with a 17-1 record and 0.89 ERA as a senior last year at Newton County High School. He struck out 164 batters, helping lead Newton County to the state championship last year.
There are a number of questions heading into the 2007 season concerning the makeup of the relief staff. Gone from the bullpen from a season ago is an All-American closer in Best, along with set-up man Matt Caire.
Best was named a first-team honoree to the American Baseball Coaches Association's All-South Region team and was named a second-team All-Conference USA selection. He finished with a 6-2 record with 13 saves and a 2.22 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched. He struck out 50, walked 11 and opponents hit .227 against him. Best tied the school single-season save record and set the career save record with 25. He was drafted as the first pick of the 14th round by the Kansas City Royals.
Caire made 26 appearances, second on the team, pitching in 22.2 innings with 18 strikeouts and eight walks. He finished with a 3.97 ERA and opponents had a .306 batting average against him.
One pitcher with experience out of the pen from a year ago is converted starter and senior pitcher Patrick Ezell, who saw time as a starter and in relief a season ago. In 2006, Ezell finished with a 1-3 overall record on 20 appearances, making five starts. He pitched in a total of 47.0 innings, striking out 33 batters while walking just 13. While seeing time as a starter is not out of the picture, Palmer expects Ezell to be a part of relief corps because of his experience and control on the mound.
In addition to Ezell, Cavenaugh and redshirt-sophomore Jonathan Johnston also could factor in big in the bullpen. Johnston made 11 appearances in 2006, finishing with an 0-1 record and a 6.08 ERA with nine strikeouts and six walks in 13.1 innings pitched.
One pitcher who could factor into the 2007 season is redshirt-junior Mike Cashion. Cashion, who sat out half of 2005 and all of 2006 after recovering from an elbow injury sustained during his Friday night start at East Carolina on April 8, 2005. Prior to the injury, Cashion was having an outstanding sophomore season. He was 4-1 with a 3.62 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched. He struck out 60, walked 19 and opponents were hitting .223 against him. While Palmer is unsure of when Cashion would return to action, if he comes back at the level of play he had prior to his injury, the pitching rotation would be that much stronger.
Redshirt-junior Bryan Adams, junior college transfer Tyler Conn, redshirt-sophomore Ben Wade and freshman Jordan King are looking to add to the pitching mix this season. Last season, Adams made seven appearances and finished with a 1-0 record with 17 strikeouts and 11 walks in 12.0 innings pitched with a 1.50 ERA. Wade made six appearances, one start, striking out six with five walks in 9.0 innings of work.
Conn, a lefty from Gulf Coast Community College, finished with a 6-3 record with a 4.92 ERA last season. He struck out 71 batters, ranking No. 13 in the nation in strikeouts.
King, a high school teammate of McInnis and also a two-time all-state selection, was a pitcher and third baseman at Northwest Rankin. A member of the Clarion Ledger's "Dandy Dozen", he finished with an 8-2 record with a 1.88 ERA. He struck out 94 batters and opponents hit .213 against him.
Also adding depth on the pitching staff and looking to compete for playing time will be redshirt junior Leighton Davis and freshmen left-hander Houston Brown and right-handers J.R. Ballinger, Collin Cargill and Garrett Harris.