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.






May 3, 2006

Four Wins Heading into Exam Week


We played Mississippi State last week in a two-game series and won both of them. We beat them pretty handily the first night (13-6) and then had a great start out of (junior right-handed pitcher) Ryan Belanger (pitched  7.1 innings, gave up three runs, two earned, on 11 hits and struck out 10) the second night to win that game (6-3) and get the series.

The hitters did their job in the series, as we banged out 17 hits in the first game and had 14 in the second game. We found a way to win in the second game, which is how I thought we would be winning games all year. Unfortunately, we’ve either been winning big or not winning at all lately. Winning 6-3 against State is a tremendous win, puts us in a position we like to be in. Winning a game like that is typical of a good win in college baseball, where if your pitching and defense holds up, you win the game.

We left the second game of the Mississippi State series on a tremendous high heading up to Marshall. However, I don’t think we were focused enough on the first night (lost 3-6). We made mental mistakes on the field, such as a situation where we could have had a double-play ball that could have come home with the bases loaded, but instead went to second base, and we ended up not getting a double play and a run scored. We also left men in scoring position all night, whereas in the past few games, especially against Mississippi State, we’ve been knocking those runs in.

The one bright spot on Friday night was (redshirt freshman right-hander) Jonathan Johnston, who’s a reliever and undershooter (throws sidearm). He came in early in the second inning and took us all the way into the sixth inning (pitched four innings, gave up one run on four hits and struck out three). He created a huge lift for us and gave us a chance to win the ball game. That’s probably the most pressure-packed situation that he’s ever been in, and he responded like he’s done it a million times, and I was real proud of “Johnny” for doing that.

On Saturday, (senior third baseman) Marc Maddox and I had a “sit-down” with the position players, and we talked with them for about 10 minutes and told them, “Look, this is it for us, and this is it for the season. If we don’t decide to turn it around right now, we might as well stop playing.”

At that point, we were in a situation in that if we didn’t take the next two games from Marshall, we would be in bad shape. Luckily, we responded well to our own self-challenge and took the next two games. The coaches try to challenge us all of the time, but sometimes you have to challenge yourself to be self-motivated. So we found a way to win the next two days by banging out a lot of hits on Saturday (18 hits in 19-4 victory in seven innings) and then on Sunday, (senior right-hander) Cliff Russum threw a one-hit shutout, which speaks for itself.

The key to his victory was that Cliff threw around 80 percent first-pitch strikes. When you’re ahead 0-1 in the pitch count as a pitcher, it makes things a million times easier than being down 1-0. It’s all about being in the driver’s seat, because if you start the batter off and you’re ahead, the hitter has to be thinking a little bit. However, if you get behind, it takes the thinking out of the hitter’s mind and forces you to throw strikes on that next pitch that he’s ready to hit. Along with Cliff, we got a lot of good defensive plays that day. We went error-free in both games, which is tremendous, to take two out of three from Marshall.

After flying back on Sunday, things have been going along with the “dead week” that we’re having on campus, with it being one week before exams. Along with that, last week’s games were our last midweek games of the season, unfortunately. However, it loads the barrel in terms of our pitching staff, as we now have a loaded gun. Though we have our normal weekend starters going this weekend (redshirt sophomore right-hander David Clark, redshirt senior right-hander Scott Massey and Russum), we’ve got all sorts of ammunition in the gun so that if one of our starters gives up two runs in a situation where we feel we need to get another look - BAM! - here comes another guy.

Regardless, the midweek guys that have started games for us in (redshirt sophomore right-hander) Barry Bowden, (junior right-hander) Patrick Ezell and now Belanger, are now all chomping at the bit to get whatever mound time they can get. So when they get out there, you can expect nothing but tremendous stuff because everyone’s fighting for time on the mound. I think that Clark, Massey and Russum will continue to be our starters, but everybody wants mound time, and Coach Palmer is leaving it up to them. If you pitch well, you stay in the game. If you don’t pitch well, we have plenty of other guys here to help out the cause.

I think this is a good thing to have because not only does it take some pressure off some guys, but it also adds some incentives that you must focus more when you’re out there to do your best, or there’s going to be some guy warming up down there that’s ready to take your spot. The bottom line is that we’ve got to get wins, and I know that none of those starters would have it any other way. If they’re not having good stuff that night, they’ll happily hand the ball over to a guy that will.

As a team, we’ve got to get on a roll with wins. Losing three straight against Rice was our biggest losing streak of the year, and we haven’t won more than four games in a row yet this season. It’s frustrating to us that we haven’t started a roll, yet at the same time I’m also a little excited because it makes me think that our chance to peak on the season is coming. Each team, regardless if they’re ranked No. 1 or No. 30 in the country, goes through a spell where they’re playing well and are peaking, and we haven’t hit that yet. There’s no time like this weekend, when we have a good East Carolina team coming in (May 5-7), to get on a roll. We’re on a two-game win streak right now, and we need to keep rolling this weekend, one game at a time, and try to find a way to keep it going.

Speaking of streaks, none of our hitters have gone into a big tear yet, though we’ve had guys go on impressive streaks and kill the ball like what (junior outfielder) Toddric Johnson has been doing lately (Last week, Johnson hit .455 (10/22) with 10 hits, two doubles, eight runs scored, three home runs and eight RBI). At the same time, we haven’t had guys who have gone on big slumps either. So hitting-wise, we’ve stayed consistent with each player trying to help the team out the best way that they can individually.

The key part in us getting better is our practices. With no midweek games, we have to find a way to get better in practice every time. If we let these practices be a waste, the guys who are having productive practices in our
conference like East Carolina and Tulane, are going to be gaining on us. Though we now have more days to practice, the level of practice will stay the same as it has been the whole season, though we may stay longer to work on more fundamental things.

With no midweek games, practices now consist of more bullpens for pitchers. Bowden, for instance, threw a bullpen yesterday since he hasn’t pitched since last Tuesday, and he needs to keep his arm going and is ready to throw on Friday or Saturday at any relief call that we need him for. A couple of younger guys also threw some bullpens yesterday as well. In these bullpen sessions, you get a catcher with a pitcher in the pen to throw 30 or 40 pitches, spotting up fastballs with an occasional breaking ball in there for variety. A coach is usually with them, and stands behind them to let them know how they’re doing.

The bullpen is all about learning and trying to perfect your pitch such as locating the fastball, which is one of the big things that we stress. Half the pitches they throw are fastballs, and if they don’t locate them, we go back to it. Once they hit the spot, then we can move on to the next pitch.

While that is going on, batting practice is going on in the field with the position players. Yesterday we finished practice with a “hit and run” drill, which was our conditioning and hitting at the same time. It’s basically where you have a guy on first and who’s running and you’re trying to hit the ball on the ground to advance him. The pitchers were in the outfield going through the motions, basically shagging the balls for us, but also giving us a look at where the ball would be. Coach Berry is out there during the drill giving us signs as to where he’s either holding us up or moving us up a base. Today we’ll probably do some double-play drills for the infielders, and maybe some pitcher-fielding practice, which is getting off the mound on bunts, or getting over to first base to cover. There’s a bunch of little stuff that we go over now, as we shouldn’t be going over the technical stuff like bunting defense at this time of year. If we do go over the technical stuff, it’s only for a few minutes to keep our minds fresh on it.

With that said, we’re glad to be back at home after two weekend series on the road. We love playing here and we’re ready to have the fans of “The Pete” behind us getting fired up. We have a big series with East Carolina this weekend, we hope to have a big crowd and we hope to give them all what they come to see, which is a win for Southern Miss.

Kevin Coker


Previous Entries

Getting a Good Look at No. 1 (4/27/06)

Ready for Spring Break (4/11/06)

Conference Sweep (3/27/06)

The Arms Race (3/22/06)

Midweek Showdown with the Crimson Tide (3/14/06)

Getting the Offense in Gear (3/8/06)

Leaning on the Freshmen (3/1/06)

The Fun has Begun (2/21/06)


(photo courtesy of Southern Miss Media Relations Office)