It’s not quite correct to say that James McMahon of Southern Miss came out of nowhere to become one of the nation’s best pitchers this season.
McMahon came out of Oak Grove, just west of Hattiesburg, where he played quarterback in football and overpowered hitters in baseball. He signed initially with Mississippi State to play baseball, but then decided to stay closer to home where his family owns a construction business.
Before this, his fifth year at USM, he had done little to predict what has happened this spring.
He red-shirted as a freshman and then threw a not-so-grand total of 53 innings, all in relief over 37 appearances over the next three seasons. As a sophomore, the opposition batted .400 against him. As a junior, foes hit .326 off him. His career record was 3-2. His earned run average was 6.04.
There are adjectives for those numbers. “Mediocre” is one of the nicer ones.
Which brings us to this season and something all together different. Moved into the weekend rotation as a Sunday starter, McMahon has racked up a 7-0 record with a 1.27 ERA. He has pitched more innings this season than the rest of his career combined. He has given up only 41 hits in 56.2 innings. He has walked only 13 batters while striking out 37. Opponents are hitting a measly .202 off him.
There are adjectives for those numbers, too. The word “special” comes immediately to mind.
McMahon has superlative Friday night numbers, but remains the Sunday starter.
“We thought about switching him, but why would you mess with success?” USM coach Scott Berry says. “James has been like an automatic ‘W’ on Sunday. It’s been like a sure victory every time he goes out there.”
Actually, USM is 8-0-1 in games in which McMahon has pitched. To give you an idea of how important he has been, the Golden Eagles (20-12-1), have been 12-12 in games in which McMahon hasn’t pitched.
And so you, as I, might wonder: What happened with McMahon? Did he change arm angles? Did he develop a new pitch? Did he add 20 pounds of muscle and add 5 mph to his fast ball?
None of the above, really.
“I quit trying to overpower hitters,” McMahon says. “I’m not trying to strike everybody out.”
McMahon went to Berry at the close of the 2014 season and told him he wanted the opportunity to start games as a senior.
Berry basically said, “Fine, go pitch summer league ball and get some innings.”
McMahon went and pitched for the Mankato (Minn.) MoonDogs in the Northwoods League. He pitched 45 innings, helping the MoonDogs to the Summer Collegiate World Series.
“I had to figure out ways to get people out other than striking them out,” McMahon said.
Mission accomplished. McMahon still tops out around 92 mph on his fast ball. But he rarely throws it that hard.
“I developed a cutter-slider, which has helped,” he says. “But I started throwing a two-seamed fastball that sinks and gets a lot of ground balls. I’ve learned to trust the sink.”
His hard slider is still his out pitch, but he varies the speed on his fastball, keeping hitters off-balance. He rarely throws a change-up, but uses a sinking, “batting practice” fast ball with the same effect.
“His strikeout numbers (37 in 56.2 innings) don’t jump out at you, but he gets people out and they are easy outs,” Berry says. “There just haven’t been many balls hit hard against him. You see a lot of ground balls right at fielders, a lot of soft liners.”
USM’s March 21 scheduled game at Louisiana Tech was rained out. So, Berry started McMahon on a Tuesday night against Mississippi State and put him on a strict pitch count so he could come back and pitch against nationally ranked Rice on Sunday. McMahon shut the Bulldogs out over 3.1 innings in a 3-0 victory. He came back at Rice on Sundayand threw 7.1 shutout innings in a 5-1 Golden Eagle victory. For his 10.2 innings of shutout baseball he was named the NCAA’s National Pitcher of the Week.
McMahon earned his degree with honors in Construction Engineering Technology last December. Naturally, McMahon’s senior season has attracted the interest of professional scouts and McMahon says, “I’d love to give it a shot if the opportunity comes.”
With his 2015 numbers, that would appear a given.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.