HATTIESBURG — Long, tall Matt Wallner was a preseason All American, the preseason Conference Player of the Year, a predicted early Major League draft choice – and all that’s just for starters. The Minnesota native – dubbed “Big Un” by Southern Miss coach Scott Berry – had hit 35 home runs over his first two college seasons.
Wallner was the can’t miss MLB prospect – and then, he started to miss. Swing and miss, that is. Through 12 games of his junior season, he was hitting .233. Through 22 games, he was still hitting .253 with just three home runs.
Through 34 games, he still had hit just seven home runs. That’s not too shabby for your normal college hitter, but then Wallner had been anything but normal for his first two USM seasons.
Well, guess what: Wallner is not normal again. Wednesday night, the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder slugged two home runs – one to left field and one to right – to help lift Southern Miss to a badly needed 5-3 victory over Ole Miss before an enthused crowd of 5,202, the fifth largest in Pete Taylor Park history.
But that’s not all. In the second inning before anyone had scored, Wallner leaped and stretched high above the right field wall to rob Rebel Cole Zabowski of what would have been a two-run home run. Then, in the bottom of the inning, he hit an opposite field home run off Ole Miss starter Zack Phillips to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead.
That’s saving two runs and producing one in the first two innings and he was just getting started. In the fourth inning, he singled, stole second base and then scored on freshman Hunter LeBlanc’s double to lift the Eagles to a 3-1 lead. He hit another solo home run in the eighth inning.
Get this: After hitting just seven home runs in the Eagles’ first 34 games, he has now hit seven in the last nine. He has 10 hits in his his last 18 at bats, and, said Southern Miss coach Scott Berry, “Even the outs he’s made, he’s hitting the ball hard.”
None of that was what was most important to Wallner Wednesday night. As he put it, “I’m a junior and this is the first time we’ve beaten Ole Miss. It’s always a lot of fun to play those guys. I have all the respect in the world for those guys, but it feels really good to finally be on the winning side.”
Ole Miss had won five straight in the series, including an 11-2 victory over the Eagles earlier this year at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The Rebels pretty much have had Wallner’s number over that time.
“Hey, we know how good Wallner is, we know how good he can be,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “He’s one of the best players in the country and he had been for the past two years. One of those home runs he hit tonight was on a 3-2 breaking ball. He hit good pitches.
“They’ve got a heckuva lineup. I mean, you’ve got a guy like Wallner batting fifth in the order. That tells you something right there.”
Wallner did not start the season batting fifth. He was moved down from third and fourth when he wasn’t hitting well and others were.
Don’t look now, but when Wallner hits as he is hitting now, Southern Miss becomes a whole different animal. It’s no coincidence that during his current tear, the Golden Eagles have won nine straight and 10 of their last 11 games.
“I wish,” Wallner said, “I had had the mentality I have now on February 15.”
“Baseball is a streaky game,” he replied. “Confidence is key.”
Berry believes Wallner was trying to do too much early in the season, and when he didn’t get results, he started pressing.
“I don’t care who you are and how good you are, it can happen,” Berry said. “He was getting all the national attention, all the attention about being a high draft choice. There’s a lot of pressure and you try to do too much and sometimes you go backwards.
“But, no, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing what he’s doing now. He’s such a good player, such an humble guy. He’s seeing the ball really well. And he’s not missing.”
Even with Wallner’s heroics, the Golden Eagles were tied at 3-3 when relief pitcher J.C. Keys, the hometown guy from Oak Grove, became the Eagles seventh pitcher with one out in the seventh. He was as good on the mound as Wallner was at the plate and in the field.
Keys was electric. He blanked the Rebels over 2.2 innings, striking out six and allowing no hits.
Unlike Wallner, Keys had beaten Ole Miss before. When he was a freshman and also playing in the outfield, he scored the winning run in an Eagle victory over the Rebels.
“Seems like a long, long time ago,” Keys said, grinning.