HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - In what some have pegged as the top season-opening series in college baseball, the University of Southern Mississippi will host intrastate rival Mississippi State University for three games this weekend at Pete Taylor Park.
The two teams come into what has been dubbed the "Farm Bureau Classic" bearing preseason national rankings, with USM pegged at No. 21 and MSU at No. 23 by Baseball America.
USM, which is coming off the program's first 50-win season, will begin the spring against the club that ended their historic run in the finals of only the second NCAA Regional ever held at Taylor Park. Under first-year coach Andy Cannizaro, the Bulldogs came back to win twice on a rainy Monday.
USM's pitcher in that deciding, 8-6 loss, reliever Nick Sandlin, will make his first career start at 4 p.m. Friday. A consensus preseason All-American, the junior right-hander had served as USM's primary closer the past two seasons, posting a 10-2 record with eight saves a 2.38 ERA in 2017.
The move into the rotation was made after USM lost three starters, Kirk McCarty, Taylor Barley and Hayden Roberts, in the 2017 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, and saw senior right-hander Colt Smith develop shoulder tendinitis.
MSU will counter with junior left-hander Konnor Pilkington, who went 8-5 with a 3.08 ERA last spring.
Games are set for 1 p.m. for both Saturday and Sunday. USM junior left-hander Stevie Powers (3-0, 5.13 ERA) will face Saturday sophomore left-hander Ethan Small, who did not pitch last season after an arm injury.
Sunday's pitching matchup pits USM junior right-hander J.C. Keys (3-3, 5.56 ERA) against MSU senior right-hander Jacob Billingsley (2-3, 4.78 ERA), who stymied USM in an 8-1 victory in the NCAA Regional.
The three-game series has sold out.
USM returns seven starters from last season, including national Freshman of the Year, outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner. A preseason Golden Spikes candidate, Wallner hit .336 with 19 home runs and 63 RBIs.
Also returning are senior co-captains shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd (.289, 4 home runs, 42 RBIs) and outfielder Mason Irby (.338, 40 RBIs), as well as junior first baseman Hunter Slater (.312, 39 RBIs) and senior outfielder Daniel Keating (.261, 11 home runs, 31 RBIs).
MSU returns a strong defensive middle in junior center fielder Jake Mangum (.324, 26 RBIs), junior second baseman Hunter Stovall (.288) and junior shortstop Luke Alexander (.222, five home runs, 21 RBIs).