Oak Grove pitchers making their mark at Southern Miss

I found out about J.C. Keys starting on the mound for Southern Miss Saturday a few minutes before everybody else did. We got the lineups in the press box shortly after the first game of the doubleheader Saturday, and my eyes immediately went wide with excitement.

You see, when I cover Southern Miss, I’m always looking for the local-player angle. I don’t cover USM on a daily basis, so when I do go, it’s always fun to see local players do well.

As Keys was getting ready to make his first career start in a Golden Eagle uniform, it hit me: He would be the second pitcher of the weekend from Oak Grove High School to start on the mound, joining Friday night starter, Kirk McCarty. That’s incredible.

But actually, it gets more remarkable than that. Alan Hinton, a former sports editor and contributor to PineBeltSPORTS, brought up an even better point. Of the last four games (Tuesday at UNO and the weekend series with Xavier), three of the starters were from Oak Grove, which included Taylor Braley.

“It’s a blessing,” Keys said about playing with old high school teammates. “To see guys who you’ve played in high school with, and to continue to play with them, it’s just fun.”

Who knows if McCarty and Braley will be around next season, but Southern Miss is getting another Oak Grove pitcher/infielder in Drew Boyd next season, and I expect him to be a weekend starter eventually. It may not be immediately, but sometime during his career he will get at least one start.

So, what’s in the water at Oak Grove? What is head coach Chris McCardle doing to produce excellent pitching? I have my theories, and there might be a story about it later on during the season. 

But, back to Keys and his first start. He found out about earning the start while the team was in New Orleans last Wednesday for the game against UNO, and the nerves started then. He began the game with a strikeout, but he did allow a couple of base runners in the inning before settling down.

He ended up pitching six innings, which was double the amount of his career-long, and he had only logged five innings on the young season prior. I’d say that’s a good way to start your career as a starter. He said after the game his fastball was working for him, but his best pitch, the curveball, took some time to get command.

USM head coach Scott Berry said after the game that the Southern Miss staff had been grooming Keys to be a starter since he arrived on campus last year. He only made four appearances on the mound as a freshman, serving mostly as a pinch runner or a late-inning defensive replacement.

Apparently Scott was impressed enough watching his relief appearances this season to hand Keys the ball as a starter. It does help that Keys has added a changeup to his arsenal to go along with his curveball and fastball.

Scott also said it was important to get Keys a start before conference play starts this weekend, and even though he didn’t go as far as to say he’ll start, which I assume he will, Scott said Keys handled his first start well.

It must be nice for these Oak Grove players to keep the same black and gold color scheme for an extra three or four years.

Follow Camal on Twitter via @PineBeltSPORTS or email him: camal@PineBeltSPORTS.com