State ace Konnor Pilkington

This is a big baseball deal at Hattiesburg this weekend. Mississippi State and Southern Miss play a three-game series to open a much-anticipated college baseball season in the Magnolia State.

Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss are all ranked nationally and projected by experts to be NCAA Tournament teams and perhaps regional hosts. In Division II, Delta State, as usual, sports a powerhouse team, already off to a 4-1 start.

But Pete Taylor Park is where pro scouts will flock and many eyes outside Mississippi will be focused. USM is coming off a best-ever 50-victory season. State is coming off a 40-win season in which it toppled USM in the same ballpark to advance to an NCAA Super Regional.

State has projected first round pick Konnor Pilkington, a junior left-hander, on the mound in the first game Friday at 4 p.m. USM will counter with Nick Sandlin, a junior right-hander, who has been a lights-out closer for two seasons and is a pre-season All-American.

USM’s Matt Wallner, another preseason All-American as a slugger, apparently has been released to pitch – and his 97 mph fastball and wicked slider were nearly un-hittable before a hip injury curtailed his pitching last season as a freshman. He figures to be USM’s closer.

Versatile Jake Mangum, who has hit .360 over two seasons, leads a revamped Mississippi State lineup.

University of Southern Mississippi coach Scott Berry Credit: USM sports information

The three-game series has all sorts of plots and sub-plots, including this one: Southern Miss coach Scott Berry will not be around for the first two games.

Berry was ejected from State’s 8-6 regional championship victory over USM last spring. Umpires said Berry did not leave the field soon enough and assessed a two-game suspension that begins Friday and ends Saturday.

Berry clearly believes the punishment did not justify the crime, but didn’t want to dwell it on it Thursday morning — nor the fact that replays clearly showed the umpire was wrong on the call.

“It is what it is, nothing anybody can do about it,” said Berry, who will watch the first two games via a Conference USA webstream in his office. He is not allowed to have any contact with his coaches in the dugout.

“I can’t even be on the field for batting practice or fielding practice before the games,” he said.

Assistant Chad Caillet will replace Berry.

“I don’t like it, but we’ll be fine,” Berry said. “I think this just shows again the need for instant replay usage in college baseball, especially in post-season tournament competition. We do it in football and basketball. Why not baseball?”

Berry believes replay reviews in turn would reduce the number of umpires-coaches arguments such as the one that caused his ejection and eventual suspension.

That won’t be the case this weekend or throughout the 2018 college baseball season, one that holds so much promise for Mississippi teams. Ole Miss is ranked No. 16, USM No. 21 and State No. 23 in Baseball America’s pre-season poll.

“College baseball interest is at an all-time high everywhere, but that’s especially so in Mississippi,” Berry said. “That’s what makes this series to open the season so special.”

The series was declared a sellout more than two weeks ago.

There is an obvious flip side to the beauty of an in-state matchup of two exceptional teams to begin the season. And that is one really good team will exit the first weekend with a losing record, perhaps even a winless record.

Said Berry, “That’s the nature of the beast. But we’re in this to compete. It’s all about competing and this will be college baseball competition at its best. We look forward to it, and I know Mississippi State does as well.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.