Braley becomes double threat for USM baseball

Braley becomes double threat for USM baseball

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - He's the man his teammates call 'Meat," a rededicated diamond dog with a cannon arm and booming bat who lives in a perpetually dirty uniform.

Taylor Braley is the old-school heart of a University of Southern Mississippi baseball program that has risen to No. 17 in the national rankings, a throwback to when the game was just a game and a heckuva lot of fun.

So, it's little wonder that Braley shrugs at the notion that being USM's mainstay at third base while doubling down as a starting midweek pitcher is something out of the ordinary.

To him, it's just baseball.

"I never thought of it as being that big of a deal because I always did it growing up," said Braley, a former football and baseball standout at Oak Grove High School. "But (USM pitching coach Michael Federico) brought it up after the game the other day, and he was like, 'How does it feel to be able to pitch and hit at the same time, to maybe go out there and hit a double and be dirty as can be and then just go out there on the mound and pitch?'

"I was like, 'You know, I really didn't think about it,' but it's really a lot of fun. Not a lot of people do it in this league, so it's definitely been a blessing."

Not a lot of people have done it at USM, at least not recently.

The Golden Eagles have had their share of position players who have pitched in relief.

This season, freshman Matt Wallner, who primarily has started in center field, is 2-0 with three saves with a 2.08 ERA this season in relief. A few years back, third baseman Bradley Roney served as the Golden Eagles' closer.

Former USM coach Corky Palmer occasionally used left-hander Shea Douglas as a designated hitter when he wasn't starting on the mound, but Douglas did not usually hit when pitching.

The last Golden Eagle to serve dual roles on a full-time basis was catcher Chris Logan, who appeared in 16 games as a pitcher in 1994, with eight starts for Coach Hill Denson. Logan threw six complete games, finishing 7-2 with a save.

Braley, who appeared in relief in three, early games as a USM freshman in 2015, said he and Federico began talking about the possibility of regular pitching starts this past fall.

"I had tried it a little bit the past couple of years, but I never had time to go to the bullpen to get loose," Braley said. "This has been something else."

This year, Braley has made five starts, all during the midweek. The junior lasted just two innings at the University of Alabama in his debt as a Southern Miss starter, but only has gotten better.

He broke through at the University of New Orleans on March 8, allowing two hits and striking out 11 in 7 1/3 innings in a 6-0 USM win. Braley followed with wins against Mississippi State University and the University of South Alabama, and heads into Tuesday night's game against the University of Mississippi at 3-0 with a 4.05 ERA. He has struck out 28 batters while walking just nine

His mound work has not hampered his hitting. Braley leads the Golden Eagles with a .343 batting average and ranks second on the team in RBIs (26) and home runs (8) and fourth in doubles.

How wary are opponents of Braley lurking in the heart of the Golden Eagles batting order? In 29 games, he has walked a team-high 28 times. In his two previous seasons, Braley collected 36 walks.

"He's just one of those special kids," said USM coach Scott Berry, who has seen his Golden Eagles match the program's best start with 24 wins in its first 29 games. "He had it in high school, and I think he's had it a long time. It's never left him.

"Sometimes it plays out with some kids, but for somebody who's as mentally strong and competitive as he is, the change in levels (from high school to college) has only enhanced his competitiveness."

Again, Braley shrugged when asked what he thought about the kind of year he was having.

"It's not going bad, but it's not going as good as it could go," Braley said. "It's been kind of been a level game the whole year. I haven't been doing outstanding and I haven't been doing really bad."

Braley always had been a baseball standout, from his days as an Oak Grove youngster to helping his high school team to a pair of state championships.

And while Braley said he never burnt out on baseball, it took a debilitating knee injury midway through last season brought home how much the game meant to him.

"I remember last year, at one point I was like, 'Dang, this is a lot of baseball,' like I'm tired of playing," Braley said. "Then, I got hurt, and I was like, 'I just want to practice.' I didn't have to play in a game. I just wanted to practice again."

Braley, who had gotten off to a ferocious start in 2016 with a .480 batting average, five home runs and 12 RBIs in seven February games, was hitting .323 with 31 RBIs in 27 games when he leapt to field a chopper toward the third base-line at Charlotte.

"I don't know whether it was when I jumped or when I landed or when I tried to turn around toward first and my foot stayed planted," Braley said. "I never felt it at the time because I threw the ball to first, but right after, it was like, "Something's not right.' I couldn't put pressure on it, couldn't go side to side."

Braley had torn a meniscus in his left knee, a cushiony tissue that basically acts as part shock absorber/part stabilizer in the joint. Arthroscopic surgery repaired the damage, but Braley was sidelined the rest of the season and spent the remainder of the calendar year recovering completely.

He couldn't put weight on his leg for six weeks and rehabilitation lasted another 11 to 12 weeks. Braley was forced to watch the rest of USM's home games from atop the equipment box next to the Golden Eagles' bench behind the on-deck circle.

"That was no fun at all," Braley said. "I mean, I couldn't even get down and walk into the dugout, couldn't go down stairs. I'm not kidding.

"That was when I realized how much I loved baseball."

Finally, after Christmas, Braley said he began to feel like himself.

"I had to get that trust back, but it didn't take long," Braley said. "Now, I don't even think about it. I forget even which leg it is."

Berry said Braley has developed into a very unique player.

"Usually when you find them, they are going to be bigger, stronger kids with the endurance to stand the workload," Berry said, "and he's one of those guys."

Braley said he just hopes to be able to keep contributing to the Golden Eagles' success, whether that's with his arm or his bat.

Or in his case, both.

"Hopefully, we can keep it going, keep playing good ball, not think about the rankings and all the stuff like that," Braley said. "All that matters is where we are at the end of the year."