Last week, the University of Southern Mississippi baseball team pulled off a feat that had only been done once before in program history when the Golden Eagles partnered a Conference USA postseason crown to go the league’s regular-season championship.
But as well as USM played during that five-game stretch at MGM Park in Biloxi, the Golden Eagles believe they can perform even better, and they likely will need to when they open play at 7 p.m. Friday against Dallas Baptist University in the Fayetteville Regional.
“I thought we played really well, and we can build off some things,” USM junior first baseman Hunter Slater said. “We feel like we missed on some opportunities on offense, so we can learn from that, but we just want to keep the momentum we’ve got going into this week. That’s the biggest thing I think we can take from this past week of baseball.”
Offensive opportunities may be at a premium when the second-seeded Golden Eagles (40-19) take on the third-seeded Patriots (40-19) in a first-round matchup that will pit two of the nation’s top starting pitchers against two of the nation’s most prolific and productive offenses.
USM will send junior Nick Sandlin (9-0, 1.13 earned run average) against DBU junior right-hander Trevor Conn (8-1, 2.92 ERA) in a duel of All-Americans.
Sandlin, 2018 C-USA Pitcher of the Year and a nationalist semifinalist for both the Golden Spikes and Dick Howser awards, was named first-team All-America by both Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America.
Sandlin’s ERA and 0.69 WHIP (Walks & Hits divided by Innings Pitched) are the best in Division I pitching. He has walked 15 batters and struck out 134 over 95 1/3 innings, and his strikeouts-to-walks ratio (8.93) ranks second nationally. He also ranks second nationally in hits-per-nine-innings (4.81).
Conn, 2018 Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year, was named third-team All-America by Collegiate Baseball. His 2.92 ERA was lowest among MVC pitchers and he walked 20 batters while striking out 50 over 64 2/3 innings.
Joining Sandlin and Conn as All-America were USM junior third baseman Luke Reynolds and DBU junior outfielder Devlin Granberg.
Reynolds, 2018 C-USA Player of the Year, was named first-team All-America by Collegiate Baseball and second-team All-America by Baseball America.
Reynolds led Division I in walks (63) and on-base percentage (.562), was fifth in slugging percentage (.729), sixth in runs (69) and tied for ninth with a .400 batting average.
Granberg, 2018 MVC Player of the Year, was named first-team All-America by both Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America.
Granberg’s .426 batting average and 100 hits were both third-best nationally and he ranked fourth with a .531 on-base percentage and 35th with a .651 slugging percentage.
Both USM and DBU can put up runs, with the Golden Eagles ranking fifth nationally with 478 runs scored and 8.11 runs scored per game and the Patriots tied for ninth with 437 runs and 10th with 7.4 runs scored per game.
The Patriots, who are in a NCAA Regional for the fifth consecutive postseason and the seventh in the past eight years, lead the nation with 144 doubles and rank sixth nationally with 322 walks and 77 home runs.
USM has a large edge in overall pitching, with the Golden Eagles staff sporting a collective 3.55 ERA, while the Patriots own a 4.38 ERA.
But one pitcher on one night can be a different beast, and the Golden Eagles have a high regard for Conn.
“Everybody has Friday night guy, and Dallas Baptist is no different,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “We know the kind of challenge we face, but I think our guys feel like they are up to the challenge.”
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