HATTIESBURG – Two games into a puppy of a baseball season, at least two points can be made about the Southern Miss and Mississippi State teams:

Rick Cleveland

• One, Southern Miss will be much better with slugging Luke Reynolds in the Golden Eagles lineup.

• Two, State would be much, much better if Reynolds still made his college home in Starkville.

Reynolds, a junior third baseman from Forest, has waited two long seasons to get back on the college diamond and through two games has made up for lost time. Reynolds slugged a home run and a single to help the Eagles to a 7-4 victory Saturday afternoon. That was after he slammed a double, a single, scored three runs and drove home two more in an 11-0 trouncing of State on Friday night.

Through two games, he is hitting .571 with a double, a monster home run, four runs scored and three RBIs.

That it came against his former school made it all the more sweet, Reynolds admitted.

Reynolds said all the right things about his departure from State just prior to the 2016 season, one in which the Bulldogs won 44 games and an NCAA Regional.

“No hard feelings,” Reynolds said Saturday. “I’ve got a lot of friends over there on the other side of the field.”

As a sophomore in 2015, Reynolds hit .370 with a .452 on base percentage in SEC play, playing 17 games as a designated hitter and three more at third base. He hit .304 in 35 games overall and ended the season with a 10-game SEC hitting streak.

When 2016 was about to begin, he was asked to red-shirt. He thought he had earned the right to play. And so he transferred to Southern Miss where he had to sit out the entire 2017 season. And, all last season, when USM was winning a school-record 50 games, people close to the program kept saying, “Yeah, but just wait, our best hitter is not even playing this year.”

They were talking about Reynolds who would often take batting practice with the team and hit tape-measure home runs that had people stopping in their tracks and saying, “Who is that?”

Yes, Reynolds said, it was difficult to sit and watch for two seasons.

“But I knew I was making the right move,” he said. “I believe things happen for a reason. I love it here at Southern. I’m happy to be part of this program. We’ve got something special here.”

If the first two games are any indication, USM might. In 16 innings at the plate the Golden Eagles have pounded out 22 hits and scored 18 runs against quality Bulldog pitching, including two highly touted left-handed starters.

Lefties would appear to have have the best chance to lessen the Eagles’ considerable power this season. Reynolds, who is a strapping 215-pounder, bats third. Matt Wallner, modestly listed at 6-5 and 220, bats cleanup. Hunter Slater, a muscular 200-pounder bats behind Wallner. All are left-handed, and so is designated hitter Matthew Guidry, who is a compact 205-pound power hitter who knocked one out of the park Friday night. They are a right-hander’s nightmare and have been a fairly bad dream for Bulldog lefties through two games.

Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro Saturday said State might not not face a bigger, stronger, more physical team all season than USM. “They all look like they are 30-year-olds,” he said.

The Eagles wasted no time on a bright, sunny Saturday picking up where they left off Friday night. They plated three runs in the first, two more in the second – on Reynolds’ blast that left the park in a seeming nanosecond. They led 5-0 after two innings, 7-2 after six and never looked back.

Said Wallner, who had three hits and scored a run on Saturday, “All I can say is I am just glad Luke is here. He’s a great baseball player and even better dude. He makes us better.”

Said assistant coach Chad Caillet, who served as head coach again Saturday due to Scott Berry’s two-game suspension, “Luke is a tremendous hitter and his baseball IQ is off the charts.”

Caillet, now 2-0 as an interim coach, quipped, “I’m gonna retire undefeated now and they can put my number up out there on the wall.”

Berry will be back on the field Sunday when the two teams go at it in Game 3. Luke Reynolds will be back in the 3-hole, which is good news for Southern Miss.

Meanwhile, State needs more hitters to do what freshman Josh Hatcher has done. Hatcher had three hits Saturday, including a two-run homer, to go with three hits Friday night. His collegiate career is off to a productive, if not winning, start.

Again, a slugger such as Reynolds would really help State’s lineup.

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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.