HATTIESBURG — The NCAA Baseball Tournament pairings had just been announced on Monday when Zachary, La., native Tanner Hall was asked about what game of the Hattiesburg Regional he wanted to pitch.
Hall, the sophomore ace for Southern Miss, was direct and to the point: “I want LSU,” he said, referring to the school, 16 miles away from his hometown, that did not recruit him.
Turns out, Hall got Army instead.
Army wishes he hadn’t.
Hall, an All American and winner of the Boo Ferriss Trophy, mastered the Black Knights, pitching eight innings of four-hit, shutout baseball in the Golden Eagles’ 2-0 opening round victory. He mixed a 92-93 mph fast ball with a Major League-quality change-up that broke to either side of the plate depending on how he gripped the baseball. He struck out nine, walked only one and kept the Army hitters off balance throughout.
Said Army coach Jim Foster, “Hall is one of the best in the country and his numbers show it…. He has a change-up that would get Big League hitters out. I played 10 years of professional baseball and that’s what I saw. It was a good, late action changeup. … We had a tough time with him. He’s really good.”
Those “numbers” Foster referred to are becoming the stuff of legend where Hall is concerned. Through 17 appearances this season, Hall has now struck out 139 batters and walked only 12. That’s a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of nearly 12 to 1, which is stunning. (Three to one is considered top shelf.) Little wonder Hall has won eight of his 10 decisions.
Turns out, Southern Miss needed Hall at his best to beat Army, which got a superlative pitching performance from sophomore left-handed ace Connelly Early. Early, who allowed only one earned run over his six innings, was especially effective whenever the Eagles put runners in scoring position, which was often.
In fact, Southern Miss put runners in scoring position in three of the first four innings to no avail. Over those four innings Early faced five batters with runners in scoring position. He struck out all five. You won’t win many games with clutch hitting like that. Southern Miss would not have won this one if not for Hall.
Southern Miss finished the game batting zero-for-seven with runners on second or third – or both. It was as if Eagles were swinging at invisible pitches when it mattered most. That will have to change for Southern Miss to advance.
Clean-up hitter Christopher Sargent, playing with a painful back injury, was the hitting hero. He gave the Eagles the only run they would need when his line-drive double bounced off the left field wall with such force, it caromed back into the playing field past Army left fielder Nick Manesis. By the time Manesis retrieved it, Reece Ewing was on the way to scoring all the way from first base.
Sargent, who moved around gingerly, looking like a man much older than his 21 years, acknowledged he was playing with significant lower back pain. “I’m just going to get treatment and fight through it,” he said.
Southern Miss added an unearned run in the sixth when Gabe Montenegro singled, moved to second on catcher Blake Johnson’s sacrifice bunt and then scored on a throwing error by the Army shortstop.
Johnson, the Eagles’ junior catcher, was his pitcher’s best friend. The game was still scoreless in the fourth when Johnson’s perfect throw nailed Manesis trying to steal second with two out. Army’s Sam Ruta was on third base at the time and would have scored easily had Johnson’s throw been late. Johnson also made a sterling play, throwing out Army catcher Cam Corruto on a swinging bunt with a runner on second in the fifth inning.
Otherwise, Hall needed little help. He was dominant. Not only did he win, he kept the Southern Miss bullpen fresh, a bonus in a double elimination tournament such as this.
Berry said he never discussed saving Hall for LSU or whomever the Eagles play next. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” Berry said. “I just think the most important game is the one you are about to play. You just have to win that first one and stay in the winners’ bracket. I’ve seen coaches do it the other way and I’ve seen it backfire.”
Anything less than the All American performance Hall gave might not have been enough.
Berry did make one significant change in the Eagles’ approach. He moved Montenegro, normally the leadoff hitter, down to eighth in the order, replacing him with Carson Paetow. That’s what the Eagles did earlier in the season when Montenegro was hit in the face by a pitched baseball and was out of the lineup.
“By my count we are now 15 and 0 with Paetow batting leadoff,” Berry said.
Paetow was zero for four with three strikeouts Friday. Montenegro was two for three, walked once and scored one of the Eagles’ two runs. Nevertheless, don’t expect Berry to switch the lineup back Saturday when Southern Miss plays the LSU-Kennesaw State winner at 6 p.m. After all, 15-0 is hard to beat.
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