Now heading into his third season as a member of the Southern Miss baseball team, outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner has made quite a name for himself in Hattiesburg.
The junior has racked up accolades in his time with the Golden Eagles. In fact, just this offseason, Wallner was listed as a first-team preseason All-American by collegiate baseball outlets Collegiate Baseball, D1Baseball.com, Perfect Game and Baseball America. Additionally, he was named as a team captain alongside junior infielder Matthew Guidry and was one of four Golden Eagles named to the Conference USA preseason all-conference team. Additionally, Wallner was a first-team all-conference selection for Conference USA following the 2018 season.
With the new season comes change for Wallner, however. According to Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry, Wallner will be a regular feature in the pitching rotation this season and will also have a normal workload in the outfield and at the plate when not on the mound.
“We’re going to use him as a starter,” Berry said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be weekend or if it’s going to be midweek, but certainly if you look at our team and moving into the 2019 season, that starting rotation is a question mark. We’re certainly going to utilize his arm, his abilities on the mound, but it’s certainly going to be as a starter.”
Wallner’s workload on the mound will increase drastically with the move to a starting position on the mound. During his first two seasons with the team in 2017 and 2018, Wallner logged 14.2 innings of work. In nine appearances as a freshman in 2017, Wallner had a 2-0 win-loss record, 1.84 ERA and allowed just eight hits.
As a sophomore last season, his stats on the mound took a step back. Though Wallner pitched the same amount of innings, those innings were spread out over 12 appearances, including one start. Wallner finished 2018 with a 7.98 ERA, 21 hits allowed and 16 strikeouts.
Wallner said that he worked on improving pitch location in the offseason.
“Definitely location and just kind of spotting up pitches,” Wallner said. “I’ve kind of worked on splitters, changeup. I think that’ll be a big step for me going forward.”
Despite just having one start and limited experiences on the mound in his time at Southern Miss so far, Berry believes that he’ll fill a role similar to former Golden Eagle Taylor Braley. Braley logged 230 at-bats with a .313 batting average along with a 3.40 ERA in 14 appearances on the mound (13 starts) in 2017.
“He kind of follows a similar path to Taylor Braley,” Berry said. “Taylor pitched more his freshman year than his sophomore year, then he pitched a whole lot for us his junior year, so that’s kind of what I see in Matt and the role that he’s going to play.”
Of course, Wallner has primarily made a name for himself while at Southern Miss due to his prowess at the plate and in the field, and that is not expected to change in 2019. Wallner logged 50 starts in center field and 11 in right field in 2018. Berry expects Wallner to primarily play in right field this year.
At the plate, Wallner started 56 games in his primary role as the cleanup hitter and six games in the third spot in the batting order. As the team’s primary center fielder last year, Wallner committed only two errors in the field and had a .984 fielding percentage.
In addition to working on pitch location this offseason, Wallner has also worked on techniques at the plate, such as his swing.
“I’ve worked on my swing a lot going forward, this whole offseason, just trying to keep my bat in the zone as long as possible to hit any and every pitch that I can and drive it more consistently,” Wallner said. “So that’s something that I feel good about heading into this year and have confidence in.”
Experience has also been a big factor in the program, especially this season with 10 seniors and 14 juniors on the roster right now, along with a mix of freshmen and sophomores that will make an early impact this season. Despite losing key 2018 contributors like Nick Sandlin on the mound and Luke Reynolds, LeeMarcus Boyd and Mason Irby in the field and at the plate, Wallner touted the experience the 2019 squad brings to the season.
“We’ve got a little bit of a younger team this year, but we definitely bring back a lot of experience and a lot of guys,” Wallner said. “Just knowing that we’ve been there before and what we’ve accomplished is just a good feeling going forward and certainly can’t hurt us.”
Senior pitcher Stevie Powers also talked about how Wallner’s presence on the pitching staff will have a big impact on the team and pitching staff.
“He can do it all. He can hit, he can pitch, he can make plays in the outfield,” Powers said. “He’s going to be a huge factor for us, and I think with him starting is a lot easier for him, kind of mindset wise. I think it will help him health-wise; it will keep him healthy for the duration of the year, which is a huge thing as a starter. I think he’ll really help us.”
With all the hype surrounding Wallner and the Golden Eagles as the season nears, the potential to be an early draft pick in June’s MLB Draft also looms. Still, Wallner says he is focused on the season at hand right now.
“I try and just focus on us as a team, myself, helping us win as a team,” Wallner said. “[There is] nothing I can do about it right now, but I just go out and play the way I know how to play.”