photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics

By Robert Wilson

Southern Miss sophomore right-hander Tanner Hall was named first team All-American by Collegiate Baseball this week.

         Army found out why Friday afternoon in the first round of the Hattiesburg Regional of the NCAA Tournament.

         Hall, the Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, retired the first 11 batters and allowed only four hits with nine strikeouts and only one walk in eight innings to lead No. 11 national seed and No. 1 regional seed Southern Miss to a 2-0 victory over No. 4 regional seed Army before 5,045 fans at Pete Taylor Park/Hill Denson Field.

         Southern Miss improved to 44-16 and meets No. 2 regional seed LSU, a 14-11 winner over No. 3 regional seed Kennesaw State, Saturday at 6 p.m. in the second round. Army, which dropped to 31-24, meets Kennesaw State Saturday at noon in the double-elimination event.

         It is Southern Miss first regional to host since 2017 when Mississippi State defeated Southern Miss for the regional championship.

         Hall, from Zachary, La., struck out six in the first 11 batters. He retired the final seven batters he faced. Hall threw a career-high 109 batters, 75 for strikes.

“Hall’s changeup would have gotten a lot of big league hitters out,” Army coach Jim Foster said. “I played 10 years of pro ball and his changeup was very good. It had a lot of late action. Our hitters weren’t picking it up. It was exploding at the end. We couldn’t get the timing down on our swings. We had a tough time with him. Hall is really good.”

Conference USA opponents have been saying that about Hall all season. He improved to 9-2. Hall now has 139 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 101 2/3 innings. He ranks third in the nation in strikeout to walk ratio coming into the game.

“I can’t say enough good things about Tanner,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “Those numbers (139 strikeouts to 12 walks) are so so impressive. It’s a credit to him. He just pounds the zone.

“I knew Tanner had that ‘it’ factor the first fall he was there. He’s coming out party was last year in the regional at Ole Miss. He came in in relief against Florida State with a loud crowd and stuffed them for 5 2/3 innings. It planted a seed for Coach Oz (associate head coach and pitching coach Christian Ostrander) and myself in that game that Tanner could be one of our best starters moving forward and he has been this season.”

Tanner: “I had good command of my fastball and it gave me a sense of confidence when Army was taking some early swings,” Hall said. “I was throwing a lot of strikes. That’s my identity. It also helps to have a full team behind who makes plays. The changeup is effective if I can control it and throw over the plate. It puts the hitter on his heels.”

Berry didn’t waver from starting Hall against Army, which as a No. 4 regional seed upset No. 1 regional seed and host North Carolina State in four years ago in a first-round game. Even though Southern Miss has three quality starters in graduate transfer and right-hander Hunter Riggins (8-4, 2.75 ERA)  and sophomore right-hander Hurston Waldrep (6-1, 2.99 ERA), Berry didn’t hesitate on going with Hall.

“I’ve been able to do this a bunch of times in junior college (at Meridian Community College) and at this level (he is in his 13th year as head coach at Southern Miss) and I’ve always thrown my No. 1 pitcher in the first game,” Berry said. “It’s the most important game and you’ve got to get into the winner’s bracket. If you have a Monday game (a second championship game), only one of your starters could help you anyway and it’s the one who pitches on Friday. I’ve seen not starting your best pitcher backfire on coaches and I’ve learned from them over the years.”

Also, Hall’s eight-inning performance helped Berry not use but one pitcher in relief, C-USA first-team selection and sophomore right-hander Landon Harper, the Northeast Lauderdale High and Pearl River Community College alumnus who pitched a perfect ninth inning to earn his 12th save this season.

Southern Miss ranks first in the country in strikeout to walk ratio per nine innings (4.39), and second in the country in ERA (3.16) and second in the country in strikeouts per nine innings (11.3) going into the regional.

Hall wasn’t the only starting pitcher who pitched well Friday. Army starter Connelly Early kept Southern Miss scoreless through the first four innings. Junior first baseman Christopher Sargent hit a double off the wall to score junior left fielder Reece Ewing for a 1-0 Southern Miss lead in the fifth inning. The Golden Eagles added an unearned run in the sixth. Early allowed seven hits and with eight strikeouts in six innings to drop to 7-4.

“It was a hard-fought win today,” Berry said. “Their guy pitched well, and we left nine runners on base in the first five innings. Any win is a great win at this point. We competed against a good Army team. They scrapped.”