As team defense improves, so has USM's record

By CAMAL PETRO,

When the Southern Miss Golden Eagles entered their series with Florida International in early April, they were 22-10 overall and 8-3 in the conference. While it wasn’t a terrible situation to be in, the team knew they could play better.

Southern Miss was 5-5 in the 10 games prior to the FIU series, and there was one glaring reason why it was scuffling at that point of the season – defensive errors. Since that lull, Southern Miss is 13-2 overall and 12-1 in the conference, as it holds a commanding 3.5-game lead with six games to go in C-USA play.

A home sweep of Louisiana Tech this weekend would secure Southern Miss’ second consecutive regular-season C-USA Title.

“We talked about (the errors) during that stretch, and what we felt like was making us play .500 baseball,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said Thursday. “That was, we felt like, a big area contributing to the game that we were playing, which wasn’t very good.”

Southern Miss was 169th in the country with a .967 defensive percentage, and now it finds itself 62nd in the nation, improving the mark to .974. In the last 15 games, the Golden Eagles have just six errors and they went on an eight-game error-free streak.

The last error came in the Game 1 win over UAB last Friday.

“I don’t know what was really contributing to our average defensive play, or below average, for our standards,” Berry said. “I’m glad we got it cleaned up and are playing a lot better. When you look at those errors, physical errors are going to happen, but the mental errors that lead to the physical errors, those are the error you have to eliminate. I feel like that’s probably what we’ve done in that stretch.”

Sure, there are other contributing factors to Southern Miss’ success in the last month. Junior Nick Sandlin is an almost guaranteed win when he toes the rubber, and starters Stevie Powers and Walker Powell have also pitched well to help the Golden Eagles to three straight conference sweeps. The improvement of team defense has given the USM pitchers more security, even though Sandlin nearly strikes out most of the batters he faces.

During the 5-5 scuffle in late March and early April, Berry mentioned the performance of his bullpen being an area that needed cleaning up, too. As the bullpen got better, so has the team defense, and Berry sees a correlation.

“There was a time when we weren’t getting good play out of our bullpen, so the rhythm of the game was kind of disrupted with that, which kind of plays into your mental focus,” Berry said. “We’ve been getting tremendous outings out of our bullpen and we haven’t been walking people. With that, the pace of the game, the ability to keep the defense ready because we’re throwing strikes, has probably played into that.

“When you play good, clean baseball, and you stay as close to the minimum of 27 outs that you have to get, then you’ll have a pretty good chance of winning,” Berry said.

Fall Ball

Earlier this season, the NCAA approved two fall games between competing teams beginning next school year, and Berry is all for it. He fully plans to take advantage of the rule change.

“Oh, yeah. We’ll play,” Berry said. “I don’t know who we’ll play yet, but we’ll work that out this summer. I would think we’d probably play one here and one on the road. I wish we could play four. That’s what we wanted, but they only gave us two. Two is better than none, so I think it’s a great thing for our sport moving forward and how we’re trying to get our guys ready, as well as other programs, for the upcoming spring.”

Berry wasn’t sure how the format for the games would go, but the two games will allow him, among other things, to play players who might be redshirted the following spring.

“It kind of gives us more of an evaluation of that kid in the fall against an outside competition,” Berry said.