HATTIESBURG, Miss. _ The elephant in the room was an uninvited lodger in Matt Wallner’s mind for the entire 2019 season.
As much as he tried not to think about it, daydream with it, dwell on it, the reality of professional baseball and the opportunity to be paid to play the game he loved has been a constant companion of the junior outfielder for the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I really think that definitely got me off to my slow start,” Wallner said last week. “Lately, I’ve not thought about it much at all, not asked questions, and whatever happens, happens.
“That (approach) has definitely contributed to me getting back to who I am.”
Which is the big bat in the middle of the lineup who can hit baseballs very hard and far, far away, as he did his first two seasons, earning a slew of national All-America awards of various stripes.
But this year, Wallner indeed got off to a slow start. Through March 26, his batting average sat at .253 with three home runs and five doubles. He had been dropped to as deep as sixth in the batting order for a couple of games.
Slowly, but surely, Wallner rounded into Wallner-like form. When the dust settled Sunday night on his junior campaign, the Forest Lake, Minn., native had hit .323 with 12 doubles, 23 home runs and 60 RBIs.
The home runs tied Wallner with four other Golden Eagles for the most in a single season by a USM player.
Assuming the past three weeks were the last of Wallner in a USM uniform, Golden Eagle fans got to see him become the school’s all-time home run leader (58 in just three seasons), Conference USA Tournament Most Valuable Player and All-Baton Rouge Regional selection.
Wallner conceded the last few weeks have been a mental juggling act.
“It’s kind of tough because it’s a big time in our season,“ Wallner said.
But the Golden Eagles have closed the book on 2019, and many prognosticators have Wallner pegged among Major League Baseball’s top 75 prospects.
The first two rounds consist of 78 selections, including compensatory and competitive balance picks. The 78th selection is slotted in at $793,000 signing bonus. The picks between 50 and 66 are slotted for bonuses of nearly $1.5 million to a little more than $1 million.
Last year, former USM pitcher Nick Sandlin became the third Golden Eagle taken in the second round of a spring amateur draft. The 67th overall pick, Sandlin signed for $750,000, which was less than the slot warranted.
Wallner said he first got an inkling that he might be able to play baseball for a living
“It’s always been a dream since I was younger, and I didn’t really realize it (as a possibility) until my senior in high school, when I gained a lot of weight and was able to have more ‘velo’ (velocity) and hit more homers so I got drafted my senior year,” said Wallner of his election in the 32nd round by the Minnesota Twins. “Really, at that point, I was able to see it was attainable.
“Before that, I was just another little skinny guy (who) had one Division I offer to the University of North Dakota. So, ever since then (his prep senior year), I’ve had a different perspective.”
Scouts sometimes have different perspectives on Wallner, trying to project whether his future lies in the field or on the mound.
Wallner made 21 appearances as a pitcher during his freshman and sophomore seasons, but incurred an issue with his hip. He came into the 2019 season with a strained forearm and did not pitch at all as a junior.
“I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I want to go out and hit it,” Wallner said of his druthers. “Hitting is my passion, so maybe pitching would be the back-up plan, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Regardless, Wallner and family and friends and Golden Eagle fans will wait and watch over the next day or so to see where the player Coach Scott Berry calls “Big Un” next will ply his trade.
“I’ve loved baseball ever since I was young, and to get paid to play baseball, you can’t ask for much more than that,” Wallner said. “It might be more of a job (in professional baseball), but you’re not going to school and it is your job, which is better to me than sitting at a desk all day and answering e-mails.”