Southern Miss soaring in major leagues

Published: Sep. 29, 2022 at 1:07 AM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Former Southern Miss assistant coaches Michael Federico and Chad Caillet took a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, last Monday to watch three of their former players in a Major League Baseball game.

Cleveland Guardians relief pitchers Nick Sandlin and Kirk McCarty were entrenched in a race for the American League Central Division title.

Matt Wallner was making his MLB debut with the Minnesota Twins. As if to introduce himself to the professional ranks, Wallner’s first career hit was a solo home run in the eighth inning off former Cy Young winner Shane Bieber.

Pretty typical for USM’s career leader in home runs (58).

“Got the first hit and the first homer out of the way all in one, so that was a good little monkey off my back there,” Wallner said.

“To see him have a little success but we still came out on top of most of those games was good, too,” said Sandlin, Wallner’s teammate in 2017 and 2018 when the Golden Eagles won back-to-back Conference USA titles. “I told him I hope he hits like a meaningless home run off a position player or something like that that didn’t matter.”

“It was super special,” McCarty said. “And after the home run Wallner hit off of me in Triple-A, I was hoping to get an at-bat against him, try to right that ship. So it was fun, we accomplished all those goals.”

McCarty would get Wallner to fly out a couple games later – not before Wallner hit a two-run homer off McCarty in the St. Paul Saints’ Aug. 11 contest with the Columbus Clippers.

Fate took a few turns for all three Golden Eagles to end up at Progressive Field last week.

McCarty was initially called up by the Guardians in April before being designated for assignment in July by both Cleveland and the Baltimore Orioles.

Since his return to the Guardians, McCarty’s intent on sticking around – holding a 4-2 record with a 4.28 earned-run-average and 1.34 WHIP.

“I think you always expect challenges along the way,” said McCarty, an Oak Grove High School grad. “It’s an elite group of players up here and there’s always somebody pushing behind you. Getting here is one thing but staying is a completely different story. Every day it’s come in, come to work and figure out how to get just a little better.”

Much like their days in Hattiesburg, McCarty and Sandlin continue to battle in practice.

Sandlin played five games with Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate this season before cementing himself as a vital piece of the Guardians pitching staff.

The sidewinder’s struck out 38 batters in his second MLB season, boasting a 2.14 ERA while opponents hit just .172 against him.

“I think one of my main goals was to just have a full healthy season and be a consistent part of this bullpen that the team can rely on in any role I’ve been given,” Sandlin said.

Meanwhile, Wallner blasted through Minnesota’s farm system, batting .277 with 27 homers before getting the call up on September 17.

“It’s more of the same just with more cameras,” said Wallner, a Forest Lake, Minn., native. “It’s the same game I’ve played my whole life. Obviously on a much bigger stage and what-not, a lot better players but at the end of the day it’s still baseball. You just kinda gotta slow down in your mind.”

Catcher Chuckie Robinson joined his Southern Miss brethren on Aug. 11, called up by the Cincinnati Reds after nearly six years navigating the minor leagues.

Wallner’s promotion just a month later made the 22nd USM baseball product to reach the major leagues.

All four of those guys will say Southern Miss prepared them to play at the highest level.

To represent the Black & Gold in the big leagues brings them great pride.

“It’s been great that the fans keep up with us so much and support us,” Sandlin said. “We definitely keep up with the teams that are still there.”

“The success that we’ve had at Southern Miss, to be able to have three guys in a big league game at one place,” Wallner said. “Just happy for the program that we’ve had the success that we’ve had to give us that opportunity.”

“Southern Miss was the only school on the planet for like the first 15 years of my life in my eyes,” McCarty said. “So, it’s a huge honor for me to help represent Southern Miss at this level and to see the other guys represent at this level.”

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