Doubling up on defense Southern Miss infield leads NCAA in twin killings

Published 11:56 am Thursday, April 14, 2011

PEARL — It was a sticky situation for Southern Miss. One out in the bottom of the ninth, runners on first and second, the tying run already in and the winning run in scoring position.

A lot of teams would shrink from the moment. The Golden Eagles went to work.

Pitcher Collin Cargill threw a pitch low in the zone, just like he’s practiced hundreds of times. The batter hit it straight to shortstop B.A. Vollmuth, who flipped it to second baseman Isaac Rodriguez, who sent it on to first baseman Adam Doleac. The inning-ending double play was Southern Miss’ third of the game, 49th of the season, and helped USM eventually beat Ole Miss 8-6 in 12 innings Tuesday night.

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Southern Miss leads the nation in double plays turned, just as it did in 2009 and 2010. It has turned 216 twin killings in 156 games the past 2½ seasons, an NCAA-best average of 1.4 per game.

“I’ve been here a long time, and ever since I’ve been here, we’ve had great infielders everywhere around the field. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been leading the nation or up on top of the list every year. It’s just something we preach and something we look to when we get somebody on base,“ USM first baseman Adam Doleac said. “We don’t panic and we know we’ve got pitchers that get two-balls. It’s tradition around here.

“We do a lot of work on it and it helps us out.”

Southern Miss’ double play proficiency is no accident. Coach Scott Berry said the team focuses on that situation during practice and teaches its pitchers to throw the ball down in the strike zone with runners on base. The Golden Eagles’ pitching staff has honed that skill to an art form. In addition to the two groundball double plays against Ole Miss — one was turned on a line drive — starter Boomer Scarborough induced three more grounders that resulted in fielder’s choices.

“You just try to keep the ball down. We’ve got great infielders, so we know if we get the ball down and it’s a groundball, they’re pretty much going to turn it,” USM pitcher Chase Horn said. “That’ll get you out of a lot of mistakes that people make. It’s a good thing to know you can get a double play when you need it.”

Oddly, for all its success turning double plays, Southern Miss is a mediocre defensive team as a whole. Entering the week, it ranked sixth out of nine teams in Conference USA with a .966 fielding percentage and is averaging 1.5 errors per game. It committed four errors Tuesday night against Ole Miss.

Still, turning a double play is the fielding equivalent of getting a hit in the clutch. It cures a lot of ills and gives the team confidence it can overcome mistakes and escape even the diciest situation.

“We know our fielding is not where it needs to be right now. The fact is we’re still getting wins with four errors a game, and when you can do that you know you have a talented team,” Doleac said. “When it all comes together we’re real confident in how we’re going to be.”