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Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry calls Matt Wallner, his freshman sensation, “Big ‘Un.”
Wallner is that. In fact, he’s huge – 6 feet, 5 inches tall, long-limbed, broad-shouldered, a strapping, stream-lined 228 pounds. He ever more fills up a batter’s box.
Wallner is much more than large. As a pitcher, he hits 97 mph on his fast ball and has a wicked, mid-80s slider that breaks sharply. He throws both for strikes. He is working on a change-up. He just hasn’t needed it yet. As a hitter, he possesses stunning power. As a center fielder, he runs down gappers with a long, graceful stride that belies his speed.
He hails from Paul Bunyan country, Forest Lake, Minn., about 30 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and so I know what you are thinking: What is this just-turned-19-year-old from way up yonder doing playing his college baseball 1,118 miles away in Hattiesburg, and how in the world did Berry get him?
Let’s get to that last part first. Wallner, who hit only two home runs as a 185-pound high school junior, committed before his senior season to North Dakota.
“I wasn’t that highly recruited at that point,” Wallner said Tuesday night. “I liked the North Dakota coaches and it was relatively close to home.”
And then North Dakota dropped baseball and Wallner, still a growing boy, became an 18-year-old, college baseball free agent. Southern Miss assistant coach Chad Calliet called North Dakota coaches to ask about a couple of other players. North Dakota coaches told Calliet they needed to look at Wallner.
One look is all it took. Trust me on this if you never trust me on anything else: One look is all it takes.
USM beat out Kentucky, Minnesota, defending national champion Coastal Carolina, Creighton, Illinois, Indiana and others for Wallner’s services. And then Wallner was drafted in the 31st round by the nearby Minnesota Twins, and USM had to fight that fight. It surely helped that Brian Dozier, slammer of 42 home runs for the Twins in 2016 and one of Wallner’s heroes, was a USM guy. When Wallner, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota, threw out the first pitch at a Twins game last summer, guess who caught it? Yep: Dozier.
And then, last fall, those of us who follow college baseball closely began to hear Bunyan-esque tales about the kid from Minnesota who was dominating in Golden Eagle fall practices, hitting mammoth home runs and throwing the ball by some proven USM hitters.
“We knew he had a chance to be good,” Berry said. “We just didn’t know how good.”
Wallner’s really good – really, really good, and he hasn’t played nearly as much as most 19-year-olds who grew up playing baseball in the Deep South.
Let’s put it this way: When Wallner closed the door on Mississippi State Tuesday night at Trustmark Park in Pearl, the temperature was 70 degrees. Back home in Forest Lake, it was 21 with snow on the ground.
“I love this weather and I love how much the people here love college baseball,” Wallner said.
Wallner has made four pitching appearances for the the 17-4 Eagles. He has a 2-0 record with two saves. His earned run average? Try 0.00. Nada. He has struck out 12 batters, while walking three and allowing three hits over 10.2 innings. As a hitter, he is hitting .296 with four home runs and two doubles. He has driven home 15 runs, scored 14. He has stolen two bases. Did I mention he can really run?
Taylor Braley, USM’s standout pitcher and third baseman, and slammer of six home runs this season, shook his head when asked about Wallner. “I may have hit more home runs than he has, but he hits his a lot, lot farther,” Braley said. “And I’ve never seen anyone who makes it look so easy.”
But just don’t take it from USM folks. Lane Burroughs, the head coach at Louisiana Tech and a former assistant at USM and State, had heard the Bunyan-esque tales, and then he saw Wallner in a three-game series at Ruston, La., last weekend.
“I’ve seen a bunch of ’em come and go, but that kid is special,” Burroughs said. “He’s physical, athletic and confident. He may be the best two-way guy around here since Stephen Head. It’s Hunter Renfroe stuff, man. And he’s got real stuff off the bump. I know that’s high praise, but good gosh …”
Louisiana Tech was ranked No. 23 in the nation before USM swept the Bulldogs last weekend at Ruston, La. Wallner hit two home runs, including one estimated at 420 feet, drove home five runs and scored four more. He also pitched a three-inning save.
State’s first-year coach Andy Cannizaro got his first look at Wallner Tuesday night, when he closed out the Bulldogs in a 7-5 USM victory with a dominating ninth inning.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Cannizaro said. “He’s so big and physically gifted and he has a presence about him, both at the plate and on the mound. He’s going to help them win a whole bunch of baseball games.”
Wallner, a good student and exceedingly polite young man, just seems to be enjoying himself and USM’s early season success.
“I am not going to say I expected to start out this way, but I knew it was possible,” Wallner said. “I knew I had it in me.”
The obvious question for Wallner: At the next level, do you see yourself as a pitcher or an everyday player?
“I honestly don’t know,” Wallner answered, smiling. “I am kind of playing that by ear.”
He has plenty of time.
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