It’s no secret that Southern Miss’ pitching staff will have depth unlike any other season in recent years. It has a combination of experience and incoming talent that will make for quite a handful for other programs.
Almost every team in Conference USA will also scramble with the conference switching over to a four-game series due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The one exception to that is the Golden Eagles, as it plays to their strength as a team. For context, three of Southern Miss pitchers were named to the Preseason All-Conference USA team.
Southern Miss has at least six viable arms that could start on the mound.
Walker Powell, who was selected to be the C-USA Pitcher of the Year, returns for his sixth season. Before the end of last year, Powell was off to the best start in his career as he held a team-leading 1.24 ERA with 22 strikeouts and two walks.
There is also Gabe Shepard, whose hard-throwing fastball topped out at 97 mph. It’s no secret that when Shepard is healthy, he’s nearly untouchable as he held down one of the best hitting teams in the country in the Baton Rouge Regional two years ago. However, the key for Shepard is staying healthy. Shepard was held off the mound the last weekend before the season due to an injury, and entering 2021 he was still not 100%.
“I wish he was a little different right now,” pitching coach Christian Ostrander said. “He had a non-related baseball injury this fall that shut him down. He still has some lingering things with that we are trying to get through.
“We still have to take our time with him, but that’s okay. If he stays healthy, well, we all have seen what he is capable of. He could be a big factor on the staff as well.”
Perhaps who has had the coaching staff most excited is Hunter Stanley. Stanley will make a change similar to Nick Sandlin a few seasons ago as he will go from closer to starter. Stanley spent the summer trying to add a third pitch, which he has, as well as keep his fastball consistently at around 94, with him topping out at 95. He held a 1.42 ERA with 22 strikeouts and one walk, all of which came in relief last season.
“I think he is ready,” Ostrander said. “He has everything it takes. He is a three-pitch guy now. When he got here, he was just a fastball command guy with an okay spin. Last year, he had that fastball with good spin, and now he has that changeup to go with it. He has worked really hard, and all the credit goes to him. He is a relentless worker.”
Southern Miss also has two left-handed pitchers, which will also start in the weekend with Chandler Best and Drew Boyd.
As a true freshman last year, Best struggled at times as the Sunday starter. However, he has made surmountable leaps, with him having significant success this fall and spring as he changed his delivery. Best held an 11.12 ERA and struck out 10 batters while walking seven.
“I think he got popped in the mouth a little bit last year, but he has worked his tail off,” Ostrander said. “He has addressed some things with his mechanics and his arm path in particular that we both agreed that he needed to do to become a complete pitcher. He did that and worked hard over the quarantine. He pitched in the Texas Collegiate League, and he came back, and I saw a different guy. He’s not the finished product right now, but boy, I like where he is at.”
Drew Boyd is also back and at the healthiest he has been in his career. Boyd didn’t quite have his stuff back to 100% as he finally saw pitching time for the first time in more than two years last season. However, he had a memorable start against Ole Miss, which was a small showcase of what he could do on the mound. In just four appearances, Boyd struck out 10 batters while walking one.
Lastly, Ben Ethridge was arguably the team’s breakout player of the season a year ago. Ethridge’s role will vary between starting and middle relief, similar to a year ago. As a true freshman, Ethridge led the team with 26 strikeouts while walking five.
“Ben is a swing guy,” Ostrander said. “I could see Ben starting some. He could be starting a lot. You’ll see Ben pitching a lot. He is really throwing the ball good. Very reliable, and I know exactly what I’m going to get. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the first week starting a game and then the next week out of the pen and the next starting again. You just don’t know. He’s throwing it well.”
Veterans Sean Tweedy and Cody Carroll both make their return to the staff. Carroll took a medical redshirt last year while Tweedy was battling also battling an injury mid-season. The two are both healthy again and give the staff solid experience.
Freshmen Isaiah Rhodes and Matt Adams received valuable playing time a season ago as well. The duo combined for 10 appearances, all in relief, and combined for 25 strikeouts.
Sophomore Aubrey Gillentine has had an impressive fall as he did not see action after dealing with an injury last season as well. Tyler Lantz also returns as he earned the win against Troy last season. Blake Wehunt, who stands at 6-foot-6, will also be an option out of the pen.
Like last year, Southern Miss brings another large influx of new pitchers that features five new arms, four of which are true freshman.
However, the two most notable names that fans will likely hear of early on are junior college transfer Garrett Ramsey and freshman Tanner Hall.
Ramsey, a transfer from Hinds CC, has left an impression early. Ramsey was Hinds CC’s closer as he struck out 34 batters and recorded five saves as a freshman. Last year, he appeared in five games and totaled 11 strikeouts while recording two saves and a 2-0 record.
“He has some electric stuff,” Ostrander said. “He has some swing-and-miss stuff kind of like (Nick Sandlin). He isn’t Sandlin, though, so don’t get me wrong, but he has the stuff. He can tell a guy ‘here is what’s coming,’ and then it is hard for them to hit just like Nick could.”
The other new faces include 6-foot-6 left-handed pitcher Justin Storm, right-handed pitcher Hurston Waldrep, right-handed pitcher Will Tynes and right-handed pitcher Tanner Hall.
Southern Miss will turn to left-handed pitcher Ryan Och and 6-foot-9 right-handed pitcher Tyler Stuart.
“Tyler Stuart is a name that people haven’t seen yet,” Ostrander said. “They will remember him when they see him because he is a big fella. He’s going to throw the ball anywhere from 93-95 and spin it a little bit. He has done well and showed his parts.”
Both Och and Stuart dealt with injuries last season. Och was recovering from shoulder surgery early on last season while Stuart recovered from Tommy John surgery.
Och showed significant promise his freshman year as he recorded a 3.38 ERA in 13 appearances before shutting things down midway through 2019.
With Stanley making the move to starter, one of the biggest keys will be reproducing his production and consistency as a closer.
“I think (we can replace Stanley),” Ostrander said. “The guys are there to do it. Physically they are there. Mentally, they have to figure that out.
“The pieces are there. They just have to embrace it, and if they do, it’ll be a pretty good thing.”