AUBURN, Ala. — This time last year, Billy Oldham was pitching tiny Eastern Connecticut State to the NCAA Division III national championship, winning twice, including the championship, in the D-III World Series.
After helping pitch Southern Miss to a 7-2 victory over Auburn in a Division I regional here Saturday, Oldham was asked about the difference in the two competitions. Seemed like a good question: How does beating SEC power Auburn before a packed house on its home field compare with beating the Salisbury (Md.) University Seagulls in a game played at Cedar Rapids, Iowa?
Oldham broke into a wide grin before he answered: “Well, there were a lot more people here for this today, a lot different atmosphere.”
It is safe to say that Auburn, which won 12 of its last 15 SEC games, packs a bigger punch than did that Salisbury ball club.
“Yeah, it’s different, but pitching’s pitching,” Oldham said. “It’s about throwing strikes, staying ahead of batters, giving your team a chance to win.”
In Saturday’s win-or-the-season-ends situation, Oldham got the win going 5.2 innings, allowing only four hits and two runs, out-dueling Auburn’s ace left-hander Tommy Vail.
“Billy was just outstanding,” is the way Scott Berry put it, and he might have added that this is nothing new. Oldham bettered his record to 7-3 with the victory. He has been crucial to USM’s success after the Golden Eagles lost six pitchers to the 2022 MLB draft, one to the transfer portal and another to Tommy John surgery. Berry had big holes to fill and Oldham has plugged a huge one as the Eagles’ No. 2 starter.
But that doesn’t answer this question: How does a Brookfield, Conn., native find his way from Eastern Connecticut State to Hattiesburg and Southern Miss? You know there’s a story there.
Two summers ago, Oldham pitched summer league ball in Vermont, where he was part of a pitching staff that also included Golden Eagle Isaiah Rhodes. Those two hit it off and became good friends. So, Oldham started keeping up with Rhodes and Southern Miss last spring when the Golden Eagles won 47 games and advanced to host a Super Regional. After Oldham’s team won the national title, both his head coach and pitching coach left for other jobs. Oldham and Rhodes were talking last June and Rhodes said, “Why don’t you come down here?”
Rhodes raved about Oldham to his coaches, so Berry and USM pitching coach Christopher Ostrander started checking. Turns out Berry had once coached with Matt Fincher, Oldham’s summer league coach, in the Jayhawk Summer League. Berry called Fincher, who vouched for not only Oldham’s pitching ability but his character.
“Finch told us, ‘Billy’s a strike thrower,’” Berry said. “We like strike throwers.”
Oldham, a right-hander, is not just a thrower; he’s a pitcher. He moves the ball in and out, up and down and changes speeds. His fastball might touch 90 miles per hour every once in a while, but it looks much faster because of his changeup. He also throws a slider, which is especially effective against right-handed batters, while his changeup moves down and away from lefty hitters. Saturday, he didn’t miss a lot of bats – just one strikeout – but he did get most outs on routine ground balls, popups and weakly hit fly balls.
And when Oldham began to show some signs of tiring in the sixth inning, on came Will Armistead to pitch the last 3.1 innings, shutting out the Tigers on two hits. Armistead, who last year pitched at Itawamba Community College, also has stepped up huge against superior competition and leads USM with a stingy 1.90 earned run average.
Oldham and Armistead had plenty of help. Christopher Sargent got the Eagles started with a three-run opposite field home run in the first inning. Honestly, Sargent’s round-tripper looked like a routine fly ball to right field off the bat. But it kept carrying and carrying and fell just over the fence, just above leaping Auburn right-fielder Bobby Peirce’s glove.
“I don’t know how it got out of the park, to tell you the truth,” Berry said. “But it did and it was huge, especially after we left so many runners on base the night before.”
So Oldham took the mound with a 3-0 lead. “That makes it so much easier to pitch, to attack the zone when you’ve got a three-run lead,” Oldham said.
Dustin Dickerson, the Eagles’ slick-fielding shortstop-turned-power hitter, made it that much easier slamming a pair of mammoth home runs over Auburn’s tall, green left field wall in the third and fifth innings. Danny Lynch, the senior captain, added another homer in the eighth inning. Six of the Golden Eagles’ runs were scored on home runs.
The Eagles also benefitted from sparkling defense, especially a run-saving, big-inning-ending, web gem by freshman second baseman Nick Monistere in the sixth inning. Auburn had already scored twice on three straight hits and had runners at first and third when Kason Howell smashed a hard shot up the middle. Monistere, who last year was playing for Northwest Rankin, dove to his belly and somehow snagged the ball, then scrambled to his knees and flipped the ball to Dickerson for the third out. It was huge.
All those heroics kept Berry’s coaching career and Southern Miss’ season alive for another day. The Eagles will play Saturday night’s Samford-Penn loser at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Win that one, and they’ll play the Samford-Penn winner Sunday night at 8 p.m. Win that one, and they’ll have to beat the same team again on Monday.
It’s a tall order, but Berry firmly believes his guys can do it.
“We’ve got some bullets left,” Berry said.