Kevin Coker is a senior catcher for Southern Miss who will contribute a weekly journal to in 2006. A native of Vicksburg, Miss., Coker started 52 games last year for the Golden Eagles, batting .318 with five homers and 38 RBI.  Off the field, Coker enjoys fishing and shooting pool.






Feb. 21, 2006

The Fun has Begun


Well it's here; ball games are here, and the fun has begun. We did well, but I thought that we were going to be 4-0 this weekend based on the way we played.


First of all, we played Nicholls State, and everyone got their nerves taken care of as we panned everything out for the first game. Everyone was just trying to get everything in sync. All the pitchers including Cliff [Russum] threw great, and it was good to see him back.


Then we went down to Mobile this weekend and had a big-time win against Wichita State. Scott Massey threw great in a hard-fought game all the way around. Coach Burroughs made the comment that it felt like a regional atmosphere with two good teams that were fighting hard to get the win. After the game, everyone, including myself, became really emotional. I was so proud of how our team played in that game.


Then we come back the next day and play Stetson. We had a couple big innings against them, and it seemed to kill them because it was probably 35 to 40 degrees with a little rain. In those types of situations, you want to be the one to jump out there and get the lead and not being playing catch up in those types of games. We won that game, and Brad Owen had a great start.


On Sunday, Patrick Ezell had a good start the latter half of his outing. I wish that we could have had his first 60 pitches over because he wasn't feeling the strike zone out at first, and he didn't feel the game until about the fourth inning. If we could start over, we would have made a few changes that would have helped him make a better start, but he still gave us five and two-thirds innings, which is not bad at all if that is your shortest outing out of your starting pitchers after your first four games. If we average that amount of innings out of our starters, we are going to be talking to you in June in the state of Nebraska.


Early in the season, our freshmen have been carrying us. They're new to these atmospheres but are the ones who are getting the big hits. [Outfielder] Michael Ewing, [first baseman] Bo Davis and [shortstop] Brian Dozier had a huge weekend for us. [Outfielder] Luke Atkins obviously had the great first game against Nicholls State (3 for 3, one double, HR, RBI), but he sat this weekend out. Those guys have done a good job for us, and they have the advantage right now of being an unknown. Our opponents don't know anything about them because they're freshmen, and while they are trying to figure them out, these freshmen are ripping the ball because they do not know how to pitch them yet. I don't even know how to pitch a few of them yet because they are just that good of hitters.


It's going to be a tough year for our hitters because we don't have anyone like a [former outfielder] Jeff Cook who is going to hit 23 home runs, or a [former outfielder] Ryan Frith who I think hit 22 one year. We are not going to hit a lot of home runs. Coach Burroughs said that we only scored five out of 27 innings this weekend, but we won two games, so when we had to, we produced two or three big innings. The reason that we are not scoring in more innings is that we are not hitting the long ball, but in our defense, it was a tough weekend. It was cold and thick with the wind constantly blowing in our face. [Junior outfielder] Toddric Johnson hit a ball that had hair coming off of it after contact. That ball was screaming when it went to center field, and it didn't even leave the park. So it was a tough weekend for hitters, but we certainly could have overcome it. All I can say is that we can't wait until South Alabama comes up here to play us.


Last weekend felt like the longest weekend in that I don't think that I had ever caught three games in one weekend. I may have, but I never caught the first three, and the first games are the tough ones because your legs are still trying to get used to it. The first weekend is really tough on everyone because being out there during intrasquad, you only play four to six innings at a time and things aren't at full speed. Being out there during a real game against another team is tough because baseball is a long game, and nine innings is a long time to play. It is going to be a fun year, but it's going to be a test of our character. It's going to take a different guy each game, and we had that this weekend. Different guys came through for us in different games and that is what we are going to have to have for the whole year. I think that when you have a team that has a different hero in each game, that is terrific.


Sunday's game was chaotic to say the least. The crowd got into it, South Alabama got into it, and then we got into it. It was like a boxing match, where whoever was going to land the first punch into the other fighter's mouth was going to be the one who was going to win the game. They ended up getting that first punch, and we never got a good inning in. I think we scored three in the second inning, and that was all we had for the whole game. That's the thing about our team this year: We have been really good with two outs, and about 80 percent of our runs have come with two outs. We need to start building on innings earlier [get the guy on, get the guy over, and get the guy in]. We have to execute by getting the leadoff man on base in any way possible and allow the second guy do the hit and run the right way or get the bunt down. If the leadoff man can steal second, that would be great also, but we have got to have a lot of small ball stuff to work for us because right now, our strength is our pitching. Our defense is above average and I say that because we have all made our own little mental errors. Mine would mainly come from calling pitches because sometimes I call the wrong pitch and I am kicking myself right after I call it. Hindsight is 20/20, so if you could go back and do everything again, it would be an easy game and we would win them all because we could see how everything would pan out.


Week 1 is done, and we can't go back. We are 3-1, but at the same time, if you would have asked any of our players - including myself - if we would be satisfied after the first week being 3-1, everyone would say no. We all want to be 4-0. We did well in the tournament. We beat Wichita State and Stetson, and let South Alabama come away with a win against us. South Alabama is one of our rivals, and it is like Oak Grove and Hattiesburg playing against each other: You just do not lose to them.


It was a hard-fought game, but with the conditions - it seemed like it was being played at Lambeau Field - not a baseball game. But you have to battle through all that, and I feel that we did battle hard. We saw good things and had pitchers who got their feet wet. Jonathan Johnston and Ben Wade both came in and pitched well for us, and we are going to need those guys later on in the year. The fact that they got to get in there in a tough atmosphere such as South Alabama is going to be good experience. South Alabama and their fans are screamers and yellers, and they are not afraid to scream and yell at the other team and individual players, so having Ben Wade get in there and throw a complete inning while people were shouting names at him is going to be good for him.


Looking back at individual performances during the South Alabama Tournament, Michael Ewing did extremely well. I don't know exactly how many runs he drove in, but it seemed that every time that I got on base, he would be the one knocking me in with a big hit or a sacrifice fly. He also made some good plays defensively. I also thought that Toddrick Johnson played well. You should have seen him playing center field on Sunday. We have a left fielder and a right fielder, but I think that if need be, Todd could have covered the entire outfield. He was flying all over the place. He made a diving catch and just covered gap to gap. Bo Davis also had a good tournament. He played well defensively in his first week to ever play first base, and he has not messed up at all. He had a triple and a couple of big hits that helped keep us in ballgames.


Our starting pitchers did great as well. Scott Massey had an awesome pitching debut. Wichita State is such a great hitting team, and he kept them at bay. He gave up a homer on one bad pitch that I probably should not have even called, so I already told him that I will take the blame. But of course, he said that he should have thrown it better. I will take the blame for the pitch call, but he did a great job on the mound. Then Brad Owen in that nasty weather comes out and throws six good innings, and Ryan Belanger follows him and pitches the final three innings and strikes out six. Talk about a guy who was waiting to get his feet wet. I haven't even talked about him yet and I don't know why because he was unbelievable. He didn't even pitch in sleeves because he said he didn't throw hard enough in sleeves and asked if Coach Palmer would mind. I told him that if he continued to pitch like that, Coach Palmer wouldn't care if he pitched with sleeves ever again!


Our pitching staff was the MVP for our tournament because they kept us in every game no matter what. For the other teams, you have to look at their hitters because they did a great job for their teams. Though we won the tournament, I feel that we should have won all three games, and I am kind of disappointed that we didn't. Overall, I was proud of how the team did at the tournament.


We are going to be good, and I think that we just have to take games one at a time. Whether we play at Mississippi Valley, Texas or Ole Miss, we have to play hard. The next game is not going to be baseball weather again. It is going to be cold, rainy and just basically a tough atmosphere. The weather is going to suck, so we have to beat that. I feel that if you don't beat the weather then you are not going to win the game. I think that we did a good job of beating the weather this weekend. We didn't let it bother us one bit.


Valley will come in to play us on Tuesday, and they are just the type of team that if you let them hang around in the game, they will find a way to beat you. We have to look at it as a baseball game regardless of who we are playing. We could be playing Oak Grove High School and still have to go out and play a good baseball game. You have to play nine innings no matter who you play. We have to take care of Valley and then look forward to Birmingham-Southern, who has a good team. Scott Massey used to play for Tennessee-Martin, where they played Birmingham-Southern every year he was there, and he said that they were a tough team to beat. They are scrappy, have good pitching and throw strikes. I'm not really familiar with them, and don't know anyone who really goes there, but I will take Scott's word for it and will believe that they probably will be a scrappy bunch. They're on the road and are coming to our house with the mentality to beat us in our own backyard. We have to hold the fort down. We don't lose at home, as home field advantage is a big thing, and I think that we play better in Hattiesburg at "The Pete."


Kevin Coker

(photo courtesy of Southern Miss Media Relations Office)