‘New’ DSU Statesmen play power ball

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Zack Shannon gets ready to muscle up on one.

This is our first Mississippi baseball season in 95 years without the presence of the great one, David “Boo” Ferriss. However, one of Ferriss’s favorite sayings has never been more true than this spring.

As he told us so many times over the past two decades: “As long as Delta State has Mike Kinnison running things, we are going to be just fine in baseball. Delta State baseball is in great hands.”

That belief was never going to be more tested than this season.

From last year’s team Kinnison lost all eight position players, his designated hitter and several top pitchers. That’s right, Kinnison had to replace his entire lineup from the 2016 team that won 42 games and lost only 17. That’s not just rebuilding; that’s darn near starting over.

Again, not one single everyday starter returned.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

So here we are. The Statesmen finished the regular season last Saturday, sweeping a doubleheader at Mississippi College to advance their record to 37-11 heading into the Gulf South Conference Tournament, which they have earned the right to host beginning Saturday.

That begs the question: How in the world?

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Mike Kinnison

To which Kinnison answers: “The first thing you do is credit my assistant coaches Stephen Waggener and Eric Patten. They really took charge of recruiting. The two of them worked tirelessly to fill a lot of holes. We cast a wide net and brought in a lot of new players who have produced.”

Even Ferriss, who died on Thanksgiving Day of 2016, would have been surprised by the immediate success the Statesmen, replenished mostly from the junior college ranks, have had.

Take first baseman Zack Shannon, a juco recruit out of Wabash Community College in Carmel, Ill. Shannon has feasted on Gulf South Conference pitching, hitting .464 with an phenomenal on base percentage of .524. He leads the Statesmen in hits (83), runs (55), runs batted in (77), slugging percentage (.804) and is tied for the lead in home runs with outfielder Clay Casey, who transferred in from the University of Houston, with 16.

“Shannon has been special,” Kinnison said. “He made a quick adjustment to this league, which is not easy to do. You don’t expect one guy to produce as much as he has. You don’t expect a guy to hit for that kind of average with that much power.”

But then, the Statesmen hit .323 as a team. The team’s on base percentage is .414, which means that 41 percent of Delta State players who go to the plate reach base safely. Those are like slow pitch softball numbers.

Despite the success of all his newcomers, Kinnison is bullish on the importance of continuity in a college baseball program. In that regard, he points to his pitching staff.

“We took some pretty good hits to our pitching staff last year,” he said. “We lost our best two junior arms and I’d really like to have those guys, but we do have two weekend starters back from last season ant that’s been a stabilizing force for this team.”

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Seth Birdsong is 8-1 as a weekend starter.

Seth Birdsong (8-1, 2.95 ERA) and Cory Beard (6-0, 4.31) are the returning starters.

The bullpen has been clutch as well, led by closer Zach Osbon, who moved to that role from starting last year and has flourished. Osbon has a 6-1 record, with six saves and a 1.95 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .195 against him.

The Statesmen have far exceeded Kinnison’s expectations.

“Coming in, I was hoping for a team that would improve as the season went along, especially with how difficult our early season schedule was,” Kinnison said. “This team started well and has just kept winning. If pitching has a bad day, our hitters pick them up. And if our hitters happen to be off one day, the pitching comes through.”

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Boo Ferriss

There’s only been one key ingredient missing from Delta State baseball in 2017.

“I’ve missed Coach (Ferriss) so much this spring,” Kinnison said. “I’ve always had him to lean on and go to for advice, and I’m so fortunate to have had that. I do think he would be proud of what this team has accomplished.”

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Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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