Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
Tournament baseball is a different animal. White-knuckle moments are built in. But even then, you can’t anticipate the kind of high drama that Mississippi’s Big 3 experienced on Wednesday (and into the wee hours of today). Ole Miss, which can use some more wins, lost a late lead and fell in the SEC Tournament to Arkansas. Southern Miss, desperately needing more wins to make the NCAAs, pulled off a comeback for the ages in the C-USA Tournament against Rice. And Mississippi State, looking to pump up its NCAA Tournament resume, squandered an early lead, then rallied – twice – to beat LSU in the longest game in SEC tourney history. Ole Miss led 3-2 in the sixth inning at Hoover, Ala., fell behind 4-3, put the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the eighth but couldn’t get the clutch hit against Arkansas closer Matt Cronin. The Hogs won 5-3. At MGM Park in Biloxi, USM trailed 4-0 early, got a run in the seventh, three in the ninth to force extras and then won it 6-4 in the 10th on Matt Wallner’s walk-off home run. (You can almost feel Wallner’s MLB draft stock rising.) Back in Hoover for the SEC nightcap, State let an early 4-0 lead slip away, fell behind in the 16th inning, tied it and then won 6-5 in the 17th on a walk-off hit by Gunner Halter. The 6-hour, 43-minute emotional rollercoaster ended just after 3 this morning. Each of the Big 3 plays again today. There will be drama. That you can count on.
Every team needs an ace, and Southern Miss has one. One of the best, in fact. Nick Sandlin — C-USA pitcher of the year, Ferriss Trophy winner – has been terrific. The converted closer moved to 9-0 and trimmed his ERA to 1.13 with a four-hit, 12-strikeout performance against UAB in the C-USA Tournament opener on Thursday in Biloxi. But the Golden Eagles (41-15) will need more than one golden arm to make a run in the NCAA postseason (which could well start in an Oxford Regional). Do they have that kind of depth? They just might. The other pitchers don’t get the pub afforded Sandlin, but this is a team with a staff ERA of 3.58. Both Stevie Powers and Walker Powell, the other weekend starters, have won big games. Powers, a left-hander who last pitched on May 5 because of some arm issues, notched the win on Friday, yielding two runs in seven innings in a 5-3 victory against Texas-San Antonio. He joked about following Sandlin in the USM rotation. “It’s been a tough job all year for me,” he said in a school release. He’s been up to it, going 5-1 with a 3.28 ERA. Powell, typically the No. 3, is 7-3, 3.62, and will start today in the semifinal round of the tournament. In the bullpen, Cody Carroll (2.23), Keller Bradford (3.24), Mason Strickland (3.25) and Trent Driver (4.30) have been effective, and large-looming, hard-throwing Matt Wallner has six saves despite a 7.36 ERA in his 11 appearances. Sandlin certainly leads the way for this staff, but coach Scott Berry has more cards to play than just his ace.
Long, loud home runs – like the ones hit by Hunter Renfroe and Adam Frazier on Wednesday night – are exciting. Scoring from first on a single – as Billy Hamilton did – moves the needle even more. Ex-Taylorsville High standout Hamilton raced home on a two-out bloop hit by Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart in the ninth inning, giving Cincinnati a 4-3 lead – and ultimately a victory — at Cleveland. Hamilton’s ludicrous speed had already had an impact. He beat a throw to first base on a potential double play that would have ended the game. Initially called out, he was correctly ruled safe after replay review. When Cozart’s hit dropped in front of a sprawling Michael Brantley in left field, Hamilton scored easily. “Not many other guys are going to beat that ball out or score that run, but that’s Billy Hamilton,” Reds manager Bryan Price said in an Associated Press story. Despite taking an 0-for-4 Wednesday, Hamilton is hitting .295 over his last 10 games, boosting his average to .258. He leads MLB in steals with 23 and is second on the Reds in runs with 34 in 43 games. P.S. From the Didn’t See That Coming Department: Southern Miss, which had blasted Texas-San Antonio in a three-game sweep last weekend, lost to the Roadrunnners 9-2 in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament in Biloxi. Top-seeded USM (44-13) might not need to win the tournament to secure a host bid for an NCAA regional, but going 2-and-out could really hurt.
Whether momentum matters in sports is certainly subject to debate. In fact, whether it exists at all is questionable. But if it does exist, Jones County Junior College would appear to have it as the Bobcats move on to the NJCAA Division II World Series. Chris Kirtland’s club won three straight elimination games to capture the championship in the Region 23 Tournament. JCJC beat No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice twice in the regional. The Bobcats also snapped a three-game losing skid against MACJC champion East Central with a win on Saturday and then beat the Warriors again Sunday. In Sunday’s 6-5 title clincher, Mason Strickland, a freshman out of South Jones High, worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Logan Robbins. Strickland beat LSU-E on Thursday to improve to 10-0; Sunday’s save was his first. Mason Irby, Erick Hoard, Fred Franklin and Tanner Huddleston supplied big hits. So with Big Mo now seemingly on its side, Jones (49-8 and ranked third in the latest D-II poll) plays McHenry College of Illinois on Saturday in Enid, Okla. Delta State appeared to have some momentum last week when it beat top-seeded Tampa for its second straight win in the NCAA Division II South Region Tournament and sixth straight W overall. But DSU’s mo then got derailed by Nova Southeastern in a 9-4 loss. A 13-5 victory against West Georgia on Sunday – fueled by Brandon Cummins’ three-hit, two-RBI game — kept the Statesmen (41-16) alive, but they’ll have to beat Nova twice today to claim the region title and make the D-II World Series. With 11 straight wins and an SEC regular season championship in tow, Mississippi State would seem to be riding a huge wave of momentum into the SEC Tournament. Ole Miss might have picked up a little mo, too, by beating Texas A&M in the regular season finale, denying the Aggies a share of the SEC title. But also in Hoover, Ala., this week are five other teams ranked in the top 12 of Baseball America’s most recent poll. Pitching depth might be a tad more important than momentum in the SEC tourney. If there is a state school still playing that would appear to lack momentum, it’s Southern Miss, which lost its last three C-USA games at Florida International and slipped to the third seed in the conference tournament. But, the tournament is in Hattiesburg, and the Golden Eagles are 24-4 in the friendly confines of Taylor Park. Comfort might matter more than momentum – if any such thing really exists.
Ole Miss fans of a certain age will remember John Shaw, a star second baseman for the Rebels from 1968-70. Shaw is among the five athletes being inducted into the Ole Miss M-Club Alumni Hall of Fame this weekend. Shaw led the SEC in stolen bases three straight years, twice earned all-league honors and helped Tom Swayze’s team win the SEC championship in 1969. … Southern Miss will again host the C-USA Tournament at Taylor Park. Dates are May 25-29, 2016. USM has hosted the tournament five times previously but never won the title as the host school. The Golden Eagles’ lone tournament championship came in 2010, when the event was in Houston. … USM started fall ball on Sunday, with 16 newcomers joining a crop of returnees that includes five regulars – second-team All-C-USA pick Tim Lynch among them — from a 36-win team. … Mississippi State needed to do some rebuilding after last year’s disappointing finish, and coach John Cohen may have the parts to put together a better club in 2016. State’s recruiting class was ranked No. 3 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball. Among the 22 newcomers are three players who were drafted by MLB clubs and three state players of the year. Here’s one to watch: Nate Lowe, a first-team NJCAA All-America pick and the Florida juco player of the year. He hit .373 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs at St. Johns River State College. … Ole Miss’ recruiting class was rated No. 23 by Collegiate Baseball, USM’s was not in the Top 25. … One of Jackson State’s big signees for 2016 was C.J. Newsome, a 5-foot-7 outfielder from Columbia High. Newsome, who batted .350 and stole 25 bags as a senior, was drafted by Miami in the 38th round in June. There must have been a big sigh of relief at J-State when Newsome didn’t sign.
Ole Miss needs to beat Alabama on Tuesday to stay alive in the SEC Tournament. Whether the Rebels need to beat Alabama to stay in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid is less clear. UM has won six of its last seven to get to 30-25 against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Still, a one-and-done performance in the SEC tourney at Hoover, Ala., might not look so good. The sixth-seeded Rebels will throw Scott Weathersby (4-1, 2.39 ERA), a recent addition to the rotation who got the last five outs in a 4-0 win over Alabama in Oxford in late April. Ole Miss took two of three from the Crimson Tide in that series, winning the opener 10-2 and losing the finale 13-4. The Tide (30-26) showed its offensive potential in that one, with 17 hits and seven two-out RBIs. … Southern Miss (35-16-1) has won 13 straight games to play its way into the NCAA regional picture and has a legitimate shot at winning the C-USA Tournament and claiming the automatic bid. USM is the 3-seed in the double-elimination event that it is hosting at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles open Wednesday with UAB (30-24), which it beat two of three at “The Pete” in early April. In the rubber game of that series, James McMahon – the likely starter on Wednesday – got the W in the 3-2 victory with relief help from Luke Lowery and Cody Livingston. USM is flush with good arms. P.S. As we eagerly await today’s announcement of the 2015 Ferriss Trophy recipient, a check on last year’s winner, Auston Bousfield, shows the Ole Miss product batting .308 with a homer, 15 RBIs and 14 steals for Class A Lake Elsinore in the San Diego system. Bousfield was a fifth-round pick last June.
Only two Mississippi college teams are still standing after a generally rough weekend. Hinds Community College, the No. 1-ranked team in NJCAA Division II, was eliminated Saturday night in the Region 23 championship round by No. 2 LSU-Eunice. The Eagles (43-7) lost twice to the host Bengals in the regional. East Mississippi Community College went 2-and-out in the tournament, and Northwest Mississippi was flushed in its third game, losing an elimination game to Hinds on Saturday. Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s season ended with a whimper as the Bulldogs lost three straight to Tennessee, which claimed the 12th and final berth in the SEC Tournament. Jackson State and Alcorn State bowed out Friday in the SWAC Tournament, where both went 1-2. Millsaps, after winning its opener on Thursday, went down (and out) twice on Friday in the NCAA Division III West Regional. Still playing are Southern Miss, which will take a 13-game winning streak into its Conference USA Tournament opener against UAB on Wednesday at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, and Ole Miss, which has won six of seven heading into an SEC Tournament clash with Alabama on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala.