MOBILE, Ala. – The University of South Alabama baseball team capped its 2021 season with a top-25 ranking, and four Jaguars signed professional contracts.
South Alabama finished 2021 ranked No. 25 in the final Collegiate Baseball poll. It marked the first time the Jags have been ranked in the top 25 of the final Collegiate Baseball poll since 2002 when USA was also ranked No. 25 to end the year.
“It means a lot to finished ranked in the top 25,” Jaguar head coach Mark Calvi said. “Being able to tell a recruit that you are being recruited by a top-25 club and here are the rankings to prove it. A lot of kids know who South Alabama is, but to be among the elite – you’re in there with names like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Virginia and other storied programs. That matters, especially being a non-Power 5 school. It is a big deal for us being there. It won’t win any games next year, but it helps in recruiting and the overall perception of the program.”
South Alabama closed the regular season with a 13-3 win at Appalachian State on the final day of the regular season to win the Sun Belt Conference East Division, then won the Sun Belt Conference Championship in Montgomery, Ala., to earn an automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA postseason, where it finished runner-up at the NCAA Gainesville (Fla.) Regional.
“On the surface that was one of the toughest regionals in the country,” Calvi said. “It is staggering how many times those teams (Florida & Miami) have been to the College World Series and won national championships. In a regional with two of the most storied programs in recent history. We had our chances in the first game against Miami. We left men on base, but had a hard time getting the ball in the air against their pitcher who was throwing 95 to 97 miles per hour with good sink. That 1-0 game, that’s baseball. I didn’t expect to beat Florida 19-1, but I knew we weren’t going to go out there and just roll over.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for Florida and that we were going to give them all they wanted. Our guys didn’t care who they were playing, it was just a baseball game. And a lot of times when it comes down to just being a baseball game, I like our chances. Our guys weren’t enamored with anything else. The game went our way, and I have been a part of a lot of baseball games but never a part of 10 hits in a row against a team like that. Winning the way we won was amazing. Then JoJo (Booker) went out against Miami and got us into the back-third of the game. He walked some guys, the strike zone was tight and it was 100 degrees, but he gutted through some early lack of command and got us into the sixth (inning).”
USA defeated Miami 7-2 in an elimination game behind JoJo Booker in the NCAA Gainesville Regional to advance to the regional final against South Florida. The Jags then defeated USF 4-0 in the game to force a winner-take-all final contest, where they fell to the Bulls 6-4.
“There were two teams (USF & USA) that had their struggles during the year and were playing with a lot of confidence,” Calvi said. “One of the things that hurt us was not being able to finish that first game – getting rained out and sent home. That hurt us. I knew we were going to win that game, and it’s not like it changed the pitching at all. If we just could have finished that night, we have one game that is winner-take-all. I’m not saying we would have won, but I like our chances. But USF earned that advantage being in the winner’s bracket. I do think playing 14 innings at that time of year hurt us, but we were in position to do something the program has never done and we just didn’t get it done. They (USF) made one more play than we did.
“I am super proud of this team and the way they lead each other through some rough stretches, but I was upset for three weeks – frustrated, angry and still bothered by losing that USF game. Our goal is to get to the College World Series and we did not achieve that goal. I’m not dismissing any of the goals we achieved this year, but to me some of the things we did were satisfying but it wasn’t a satisfying year. I am still disappointed we weren’t in Austin. I’m not taking anything away from the group or the program, but my goals are higher.”
After hitting .238 in 49 regular season games, the Jaguars batted .293 in nine postseason games between the SBC Championship and NCAA Gainesville Regional. USA hit .374 with runners in scoring position in the postseason, and .336 with two outs while driving in 35 runs with two outs in nine contests. The Jaguar pitching staff recorded a 2.70 ERA with seven wins and three saves in nine postseason games, and tallied 69 strikeouts with 30 walks in 80 innings.
“I was shocked really all year long at our lack of offense,” Calvi said. “It wasn’t because we had new guys. We had returners in there who had put up some pretty good numbers in the past, so that was surprising to me. If you would have told me we were going to hit .220 to .230 through 85 percent of our season, I would have told you that you were crazy. But sometimes it happens, and thankfully there are other facets of the game that if you are really good at then you can win without a lot of offense. Ideally you have all three clicking at the same time and at a high level. We had a couple of good streaks in there, but for the most part our offense was sub-par all year long. But our pitching and defense after the first month were elite.
“My goal is to have three elite units in pitching, defense and offense. For the most part of the year we had two of those, and then our pitching and defense remained solid when our bats came around at the right time the last 10 games of the year. We were within striking distance of an (NCAA) at-large berth with a month left to go (in the season). Obviously Jeremy Lee going down did not help our chances with an at-large bid, and we knew when we lost two of three (games) at Texas State that we had to win the (Sun Belt) tournament.”
Michael Sandle led the team with a .412 batting average in the postseason, along with two doubles, two triples, two home runs, 10 RBIs, 10 runs scored, two stolen bases, .765 slugging percentage and .500 on-base percentage. Sandle closed the 2021 season with a 27-game on-base streak, and earned SBC Championship all-tournament team and NCAA Gainesville Regional all-tournament team honors.
“Our guys got hot offensively at the most important time of the year and that was at the end of the season,” Calvi said. “We were at our best the last 10 games of the year. During our struggles, our guys worked harder. This was one of the best practice groups I have ever had. We didn’t have midweek games the last four to five weeks of the year, and our guys were out here playing intrasquad games like it was the College World Series. To me, that mindset didn’t necessarily translate to on the field our last four weekends of regular season play, but that mindset kicked in during championship tournament play. And I thought our mindset was better than everyone else that we played; that was the difference. But overall it was the leadership and the makeup in the locker room. If you don’t have a team with good mental makeup, you can’t make a run; it’s impossible – the season is too long. The mindset was absolutely phenomenal, but that comes from the makeup and character of guys you recruit and cultivate.”
Miles Smith went 3-0 with a 2.75 ERA in three postseason appearances, two of which were starts, and struck out 18 batters against four walks in 19 2/3 innings pitched. Smith was named the SBC Championship’s most outstanding player, and also earned NCAA Gainesville Regional all-tournament team honors.
Right-handed reliever Jackson Boyd recorded one save in four postseason appearances with one start, and posted a 0.79 ERA with nine strikeouts and six walks in 11 1/3 innings pitched. Tyler Samaniego went 1-0 with one save and a 0.00 ERA in three postseason appearances, and struck out seven against one walk in 5 1/3 innings. Tyler Perez also went 1-0 in four postseason appearances, and combined for one shutout while posting a 0.00 ERA with eight strikeouts and one walk in 7 2/3 innings.
The Jaguars finished 2021 ranked third nationally in sacrifice bunts (55), 13th in WHIP (1.23), 15th in ERA (3.37), shutouts (6) and fielding percentage (.980), and 17th in hits allowed per nine innings (7.73).
Kaleb DeLaTorre ranked third nationally in sacrifice bunts (13), and fifth in sacrifice bunts per game (0.25). Smith ranked 22nd in the country in ERA (2.18). Sandle led the Sun Belt Conference in runs scored (52), ranked third in hits (72) and RBIs (50), tied for third in total bases (12), fourth in stolen bases (15) and tied for sixth in home runs (11). Ethan Wilson ranked fifth in the league in on-base percentage (.419) and hits (68).
On the mound, Smith ranked second in the SBC in ERA (2.18), tied for second in runs allowed (25), third in earned runs allowed (20) and tied for third in wins (7) after entering the starting rotation toward the end of the season following an injury to right-hander Jeremy Lee.
“Jeremy’s injury set us back a little bit, because we had the pitching order lined up and then we had to re-shuffle the deck a little bit,” Calvi said. “A lot of times it can be a one-man show pitching-wise, but this year it wasn’t a one-man show. Jeremy had assumed the Friday-night role, but we had two Friday-night guys. As much as it sucked to lose Jeremy and re-shuffle the deck, it wasn’t the one-man show. We had a couple of guys who could assume that role, and in this particular case it was Miles (Smith). Now, it weakened our bullpen a little bit because Miles was coming in behind Jeremy. And that sometimes takes a couple of weeks to re-label jobs, and that is when (Tyler) Perez was emerging, and we were going to guys like Jase Dalton and Tyler Samaniego a little earlier to go get that win on Friday. We just had reliable guys who helped us get to the end. Our pitchers were confident, prepared and good. We had a talented staff – quality Division I pitchers and we had depth. Our pitching held us together this year.”
Four Jags ended up signing professional contracts following the 2021 Major League Baseball Draft in July. The Philadelphia Phillies took Wilson with the 49th overall pick, which came in round two. The Houston Astros selected Sandle in the 10th round (298th overall) of the draft, and Samaniego was selected in the 15th round (433rd overall) by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Right-hander Jase Dalton signed a professional contract with the Chicago Dogs of the American Association.
“Mike (Sandle) and Sammie (Tyler Samaniego) had never been drafted before,” Calvi said. “Ethan had not been drafted but would have been if he had made himself signable. I talk about the resources available in this program on and off the field. Off the field, educationally-speaking and just life – the men and women we have in place to help these kids. Medically and academically, and clinically if they need it. Then there is the on-the-field stuff with guys we have around here who can help players develop both mentally and physically. But it is still up to the player.
“When I say a guy is self-made, some of our best players here have been self-made who weren’t previously drafted: Sandle, Ethan Wilson, Jase Dalton, Sammie, Jordan Patterson, Dylan Hardy, Travis Swaggerty, Ben Taylor, Matt Peacock, Zach Greene, Tyler Carr and Locke St. John. The list goes on. This is an environment and culture that fosters and nurtures self-starters. If you’re not willing to work, this isn’t your place. If you’re willing to work, this is the place for you. There are resources in place for guys who are willing to work. It’s the relentless work ethic and commitment to a daily work ethic and culture in this program that helps guys better themselves. And I think all of those guys have a chance to play in the big leagues at some point.”
For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with USAJaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at Twitter.com/USAJaguarSports. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).
Join the Dugout Club – the baseball-specific support club of the Jaguar Athletic Fund. Members enjoy all games from inside the Stadium Club with climate control, private restrooms, private concessions and access to listen to the radio broadcast. All donations to the Dugout Club go directly to support the South Alabama baseball program. For more information on how you can join visit JaguarAthleticFund.com.