HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi pitching staff turned in, arguably, its finest performance of the season during the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship last week at MGM Park in Biloxi.
The Golden Eagles would like nothing more than to see history repeat itself this weekend at the Fayetteville Regional.
"The pitching was solid," USM sophomore right-hander Walker Powell said, "and we needed that, for sure. The way these tournaments are set up, you've got to have a lot of pitching to go deep into them, and I thought our starting pitching did a really good job of trying to save as many arms as we could for the later games.
"That was kind of our mindset going in: Pound the zone, go as long as you can and then, when we're out of gas, hand it off to the bullpen. Luckily, we are all able to go seven, eight, nine innings."
Second-seeded USM (43-16) will stick to a similar game plan at when it opens the four-team, double-elimination regional at 7 p.m. Friday against third-seeded Dallas Baptist University (40-19) at The University of Arkansas' Baum Stadium.
The top-seeded Razorbacks (38-18) will open the regional at 2 p.m. Friday, taking on fourth-seeded Oral Roberts University (38-18).
Junior right-hander Nick Sandlin (9-0, 1.13 earned run average) will face the Patriots. Sandlin, the Golden Eagles' Friday night ace and C-USA's Pitcher of the Year, threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout last week in a 2-0 win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the opening round of the conference tournament.
Sandlin will be followed by junior left-hander Stevie Powers (5-1, 3.28 ERA) on Saturday. If the Golden Eagles advance beyond the first two games, Powell (7-2, 3.53 ERA) _ a Fayetteville, Ark., native _ would get the opportunity to pitch in his hometown.
Last week, Powers allowed two runs on four hits over seven innings in USM's 5-3 win over the University of Texas-San Antonio.
Powell also went seven innings in his start against the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, allowing three runs (two earned) on eight hits. Powell left the game with a 4-3 lead, but the Golden Eagles' bullpen suffered its only blip in the five-game tournament, allowing Charlotte to rally for a 7-4 win.
USM coach Scott Berry said the Golden Eagles would stick with a pitching plan at the regional that has resulted in 40-plus wins for a third consecutive season and regular-season and tournament conference championships.
"We knew who our three starters were going to be, just like we do now, and we will adjust from there, depending on who's left and where the bullpen is," Berry said. "We've done really (well) with that philosophy. We've won 43 games and two titles doing that, so there's no reason to change that now."
USM got a huge boost from junior right-hander Mason Strickland, who allowed just three hits and a walk in a complete-game, 6-0 shutout of Charlotte that sent the Golden Eagles into the championship game.
"That was, no doubt, my best outing," said Strickland, who was voted tournament most valuable player for his performance. "The strikeout numbers weren't there, but with the situation and everything, yeah, this was my best outing."
In the title game, junior left-hander Adam Jackson went 2 1/3 shutout innings before having to leave the game against Florida Atlantic University with an arm injury. Jackson will not be available this weekend, Berry said.
Senior Keller Bradford followed Jackson, and turned in 4 2/3 sparkling innings. The only blemish was a three-run home run allowed to the final batter he faced in the seventh inning. At that point, USM led FAU 5-2 and then added seven runs over the final two innings to beat the Owls 12-3.
In five tournament games, USM's starters combined for a 1.05 ERA. Golden Eagles' pitching allowed three runs or less in four of the five games and outscored their opponents 29-13 over the five days.
"That was huge," USM junior catcher Cole Donaldson said of USM's pitching results at the tournament. "Hopefully, they can take that into the regional. The starters had what, a 1.05 ERA, and then Strickland coming out and starting that game and going a whole CG, that was huge.
"But really, the whole pitching staff, kept us in that tournament for sure."
USM enters the regional sporting a 3.55 ERA as a staff, a fraction behind Arkansas' 3.53 staff ERA.
Berry said pitching, as always, will be the key.
"When you look at the time of year, and you're 53-plus games already in, fatigue sets in, so naturally, everybody thinks you're going to have to hit, and you do," Berry said. "But, for the pitching to step up like it did was just outstanding.
"From a pitching point of view you have to understand that it's not your job to control the offense but to control the offense of the opposing team, and I felt like our guys did an outstanding job of understanding that and following through to that plan."