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Cleveland: College Baseball Heats Up In Mid-April

Mississippi’s boys of spring – at least the ones who play college baseball – rarely disappoint. The spring of 2017 is no exception.

Mississippi State and Southern Miss both entered the week with Top 25 RPIs nationally. Ole Miss, after sweeping Alabama over the weekend, was trending back in that direction. In the SWAC, Jackson State entered the week with a seven-game win streak. And Delta State was doing what Delta State baseball always does, which is win big.

Let’s take a look at where those five programs stand, as the weather warms and the season heads into the home stretch (this is written before this week’s mid-week games):

Southern Miss (26-7, 11-2) – Scott Berry’s Golden Eagles are off to the second-best 33-game start in school history and lead Florida Atlantic and Old Dominion by one game each in the Conference USA standings.

Berry returned, for the most part, a veteran team, but a freshman from Minnesota has claimed a large share of the headlines. Matt Wallner, all 6-feet-5 inches and 228 pounds of him, has slugged a team-leading 11 home runs from the left side and is hitting .336. What’s more, pitching out of the bullpen, Wallner (right-handed with a 97 mph fast ball) has a 2-0 record with three saves and a 1.98 earned run average. Virtually unknown to start the season, he was named a D1baseball.com mid-season All-American (along with State’s Brent Rooker).

Wallner has plenty of help. USM is hitting a robust .307 as a team. Junior Taylor Braley joins Wallner in doing double duty with a .339 batting average and a 3-0 record as a mid-week starter. Ace reliever Nick Sandlin, a freshman All-American last year, is 5-0 with three saves and a 0.33 ERA.

Mississippi State (22-12, 8-4) – First-year coach Andy Cannizaro has experienced a career’s worth of pitching arm injuries in his debut as a head coach. And yet, his pieced-together rotation and bullpen has the Bulldogs tied for first place in the SEC West entering the week.

How? Start with slugger Brent Rooker, surely a leading a candidate for national player of the year. Rooker just experienced one the most productive weeks in Mississippi baseball history. A five home-run week pushed him to 15 on the season. He’s hitting .448 with an amazing 56 of his team’s 197 runs batted in. That’s right: One human being has batted in nearly one-third of his team’s runs.

When he’s not doubling as a starting pitcher, Jake Mangum, last year’s C Spire Ferris Trophy winner, is hitting .374.

Ole Miss (22-11, 6-6) – Mike Bianco’s Rebels have experienced many growing pains, none more stressful than being swept at home by State March 30-April 1. The Rebels lost those three games by a total of four runs and dropped to 18-11 and 3-6 on the season at the time.

Since then, Ole Miss knocked off USM in a mid-week game at Pearl and then swept Alabama to re-gain its footing and then some. After another mid-week game against USM at Hattiesburg, the Rebels play a huge series at LSU this weekend.

Bianco, in his 17th season at Ole Miss, could never have guessed this team would be struggling so at the plate this spring. The Rebels were hitting .247 entering the week. With so many first-year players in the lineup some of that is to be expected, but as Bianco put it last week, “It’s not just the freshman. Some of our veterans are struggling, as well.”

Pitching and defense have carried the day for the Rebels, especially in the bullpen where closer Dallas Woolfolk leads the way with his 3-1 record, six saves and 1.07 earned run average. Opposing hitters are batting only .220 against the Rebels staff, only .138 against Woolfolk, a sophomore from Southaven.

Jackson State (26-11, 12-3) – Alabama State was supposed to be the class of the SWAC, but JSU is only half a game behind ASU in the league standings heading into a three-game showdown this weekend in Montgomery. Omar Johnson’s JSU baseball teams have hit and run their way to most of their success over the last decade and 2017 is no different. The Tigers hit .325 as a team and have stolen 88 bases in 37 games.

Delta State (29-8,12-4) – Three sure things: Death, taxes and Delta State baseball winning big. A new player is leading the old, winning tradition. Cincinnati native and JUCO transfer Zack Shannon entered the week hitting .436 with 10 home runs and 57 RBI. The Statesmen, who entered the week with a seven-game win streak, are hitting .320 as a team.

Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.


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