Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Southern Miss and UAB hooked up in game that produced 25 hits, nine walks, a hit batsman and the rare “reach on strikeout-wild pitch.”
And still, Thursday afternoon’s proceedings at Taylor Park came down to the last pitch in one-run game that produced just seven of them all told.
USM shortstop Nick Dawson’s double in the eighth inning drove in the winning run and reliever Bradley Roney worked in and out of trouble over the final three innings before locking down a 4-3 victory that kept the host Golden Eagles alive in the 2014 Conference USA Baseball Tournament.
“We kept grinding,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “We found a way to win with our backs against the wall in a survival game, which every one of them is from here on out.
“This conference is pretty balanced. There are a lot of good teams that don’t give up or give in. I want to applaud UAB on the way they competed because they could have laid down in some moments there.”
The third-seeded Golden Eagles (33-24) bounced back from 9-8 loss in 11 innings Wednesday night to East Carolina University to advance to another elimination game at 6:30 p.m. Friday. USM will face the loser of Thursday night’s game between the sixth-seeded Pirates and seventh-seeded University of Texas-San Antonio.
Since its debut in 1996, USM has won at least one game in each of the 19 C-USA baseball tournaments. The last time the Golden Eagles failed to win a game in a conference baseball tournament came in the 1985 Metro Conference Tournament in Tallahassee, Fla., when they dropped back-to-back games to South Carolina and Cincinnati.
For the second-seeded Blazers (35-21), it was not only the end in a tournament that has produced four, one-run outcomes in its first six games _ the first such occurrence since 1998 _ but one of the best seasons in UAB baseball history.
UAB coach Brian Shoop said he hoped the Blazers would decline to be bitter about a tough, two-and-out performance this week.
“In this era, the dead bat and dead ball era, all games are close,” Shoop said. “Right after going out in the tournament, it is easy to make the choice of being bitter about things. We can be bitter and disappointed about going out of the tournament, which was a toss-up. Every one of the eight teams is exactly the same. They are equal.
“Or, you can be proud of the year. This was a landmark year for UAB baseball – 35 wins with 20 wins in the league; first-team all-conference pitcher and really some neat things. I am not going to let the fact that we didn’t get a guy in ruin the season. It was a great game that could have gone either way. It went Southern Miss’ way. Congrats to them.”
Indeed. Thursday afternoon was a blend of good defense (no errors) and missed opportunities (combined 27 runners left on base) that resulted in another nailbiter.
USM twice had bases loaded with one out in the first four innings on UAB starter Alex Luna, but sterling defensive plays limited the Golden Eagles to one run.
In the second, third baseman Nathan Vincent snagged USM third baseman Michael Gilbert’s hard grounder just inside the bag, stepped on third and fired to first for an inning-ending double play.
In the fourth, right fielder Jeff Schalk laid out to scoop catcher Austin Roussel’s dying fly ball, turning it into a sacrifice fly that scored USM right fielder Mason Robbins with the game’s first run.
Robbins’ single the next inning scored shortstop Michael Sterling to give USM a 2-0 lead.
UAB cut the lead to one on USM starter Connor Fisk in the sixth when Vincent struck out but reached on a wild pitch and then scored on catcher Mitch Williams double to the wall in center.
That began an endgame of UAB chasing and USM doing just enough to stay ahead.
The Golden Eagles pushed across a run in the seventh on designated hitter Matthew Durst’s infield single to make it 3-1.
After leaving the bases loaded in the sixth inning, UAB reloaded them on three consecutive singles to open the seventh. Roney came out of the bullpen and got Vincent to pop up to Dawson and then induced an inning-ending double play that first baseman Dylan Burdeaux completed with a play-saving scoop.
Dawson’s double made it 4-1 in the eighth, before Roney made things interesting.
First baseman Tyler Mims doubled to start the inning, moved to third on a single and scored in a wild pitch to make it 4-2. Another single and a walk loaded the bases and center fielder Griffin Gum’s sacrifice fly cut USM’s led to 4-3.
Another walk reloaded the bases, but Roney struck out Vincent to end the threat.
USM failed to score in the top of the ninth after loading the bases, and Roney walked Williams to start the bottom of the inning.
But center fielder Connor Barron laid out to snag a shallow fly in center and Roney got another fly ball and a strikeout to log his 12th save of the year. It was Roney’s 30th career save, tying Collin Cargill’s school record.
“That’s Roney,” Barron said. “He’ll put them on, but he’ll strike them out, too.”
Fisk (7-2) allowed one run on four hits in 5.1 innings to pick up the win, while Alex Luna (7-1) allowed two runs on seven hits in 5.1 innings to take his first loss of the season.
Robbins and Durst each had three of USM’s 15 hits, while Mims. Schalk and designated hitter Ryan Prinzing each had two of UAB’s 10 hits.