USM starts fast, trouncing State 11-0 in season opener

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Rick Cleveland

Everyone wanted to talk to Nick Sandlin after his performance against State Friday night at Pete Taylor Park.

HATTIESBURG — It was a new season and a new role for Southern Miss junior pitcher Nick Sandlin, who made his first collegiate start after two seasons as one of the most dependable closers in college baseball.

Sandlin was remarkable in his new role, and his teammates gave him plenty of support in an 11-0 victory over Mississippi State before a capacity crowd of 4,948 at Pete Taylor Park.

Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro may have put it best: “Sandlin was phenomenal. He was the best player on the field tonight.”

He was that, going seven innings, allowing just four hits and striking out nine Bulldogs. He needed 93 pitches to complete his longest outing since high school.

“I wanted to start and it felt good,” Sandlin said. “But you’re not going to lose many games when your teammates get you 11 runs.”

Rick Cleveland

That’s a nice, humble thing to say, but you should know that this was a scoreless game through three innings and USM led by 4-0 after six. State’s Konnor Pilkington, a projected first-round MLB draft choice, was lights-out early, leaving Sandlin little room for error. Sandlin was up to the task – and then some.

And it didn’t surprise State standout Jake Mangum, who was a teammate of Sandlin’s last summer in the Cape Cod League.

“Mentally, Nick’s so strong,” Mangum said. “He doesn’t back down from any situation. I mean, he’s really tough, and he throws three pitches for strikes from a lot of different arm slots and he was hitting 93 (mph) on the gun. He’s outstanding. He beat us tonight.”

No telling what the score might have been had it not been for Mangum, who made three outstanding, run-saving catches. Mangum made a highlight-reel catch coming in for one ball, ran one down back to the wall for another, and then outran the ball to catch a long fly to right-center. He also had two of the Bulldogs’ six hits.

This was a rematch of the championship round of last season’s NCAA regional championship round when the Bulldogs swept two games in one day to end the Golden Eagles’ school-record 50-victory season.

It was USM coach Scott Berry’s 300th career victory, although he wasn’t around to see it. Berry is serving a two-game suspension resulting from an altercation with an umpire in the last game of last year’s regional. He watched the game on his computer in his office, just as he will the second game of the series on Saturday.

Asked if it was a strange way to get such a milestone win, Berry said, “Yes, it was. You know, I’ve never been in adult timeout before.”

Chad Caillet, Berry’s long-time assistant, handled the head coaching duties and was joined by pitching coach Christian Ostrander, making his USM debut after coming over from Conference USA rival Louisiana Tech.

Of Sandlin’s first start, Ostrander said, “Hey, it’s just what we’ve been seeing him do for weeks in practice. The decision to start him was not that difficult – at least not as hard as a lot of people are making it out to be. The guy can just flat pitch.”

And if the first game is any indication, USM can hit. Luke Reynolds, a transfer from State, was impressive in his USM debut with a double, a single and two RBIs. Matt Guidry slugged a home run and narrowly missed two others. Catcher Cole Donaldson added two more hits, as did shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd. Guidry bats eighth in the order, Boyd ninth. Not many college teams will have so much pop that late in the order.

“They are a veteran team – big, strong and physical,” Cannizaro said. “But this is just one game. It has no bearing whatsoever about what happens tomorrow or Sunday. That’s the great thing about baseball.”