HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - One of the most successful baseball seasons in University of Southern Mississippi history came to an abrupt end after two games spread over two days.
When Brent Rooker squeezed Dylan Burdeaux's popup in foul territory early Tuesday morning, it not only secured an 8-6 victory for the Bulldogs, but also the championship of the Hattiesburg Regional at Pete Taylor Park.
"The game is sometimes unforgiving and we are feeling it right now, but it gives us many things that we are grateful for," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "What I don't want to lose in this whole thing, is yes, our season ended (Tuesday morning), but what a season it was for these young men that are sitting next to me and all their teammates.
"It's a very special group that I'll always be thankful for, and the Southern Miss fan base should, too, for all the excitement and good times they gave us. Not only did they represent us on the field, but off it as well and how we run our program."
Second-seeded Mississippi State (40-25), which had lost in the opening round of the regional, had come into Monday having to twice beat the undefeated and top-seeded Golden Eagles (50-16) to not only win the school's 13th regional championship and a Super Regional date this weekend with fellow-Southeastern Conference mate Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La.
The Bulldogs did just that.
"Just everything about this day, and everything about this night, it just summarizes who we are as a team; the fight, the grit, the grind," MSU coach Andy Cannizaro said. "These guys never quit. There is never a game they don't think they're going to win."
Rain pushed back an originally-scheduled 1 p.m. contest nearly five hours, but when it did start, MSU junior right-hander Jacob Billingsley threw the game of an injury-marred collegiate career.
Billingsley (2-3) came up with the first complete game of his career, allowing only a first-inning run and scattering six hits over nine innings as the Bulldogs won the opener 8-1 to force a winner-take-all second game.
Southern Miss left fielder Hunter Slater's RBI-single had staked Southern Miss to a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but State catcher Josh Lovelady's first home run of his career, a three-run shot, capped a five-run third inning as the Bulldogs took the lead for good.
MSU first baseman Brent Rooker added a two-run home run in the sixth inning.
Rooker socked his 23rd home run of the season in the opening frame of the nightcap, but the Golden Eagles came out swinging in the second game. Southern Miss took a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the first inning on first baseman Dylan Burdeaux's 12th home run of the year, designated hitter Daniel Keating's two-run double and second baseman Matthew Guidry's single.
Shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd's fourth home run of the season in the fourth inning gave the Golden Eagles a 5-1 edge.
But Southern Miss ran into trouble the next inning.
After Kirk McCarty gave up a single and walk to start the MSU fifth, Nick Sandlin was summoned from the bullpen. Sandlin got two outs, but then gave up a full-count home run to the regional's Most Ooutstanding Player, third baseman Cody Brown, to pull State within 5-4.
It was the first home run Sandlin had allowed all year, and only the second he has allowed in his first two seasons at Southern Miss.
Slater sliced his fourth home run of the season to right field in the fifth inning to give the Golden Eagles a two-run cushion, but the Bulldogs continued to claw back.
In the seventh inning, Rooker walked and eventually scored on a double-play grounder to cut State's deficit to 6-5.
In the eighth, Sandlin sandwiched two walks around a pair of outs before Rooker popped a ball into shallow right field that fell between three Golden Eagles converging near the foul line. The popup turned into the game-winning two-run single and put MSU up 7-6.
The Golden Eagles threatened after Slater singled to lead off the eighth inning.
Taylor Braley sacrificed Slater to second, and nearly beat out the bunt for a hit, with Coach Scott Berry coming out for a word with first base umpire Michael Banks on the out call.
Slater moved to third on another groundout before Keating hit a chopper deep to the hole at shortstop. Banks called Keating out on a bang-bang play at first base, and Berry discarded his familiar batting helmet to charge the field. After a brief and furious discussion, Berry was ejected.
The Bulldogs added an unearned run in the ninth on Elijah MacNamee's single, and the Golden Eagles, who had won seven times in the their final at-bats this season, saw Boyd reach on a two-out single.
But Burdeaux popped out to Rooker in foul territory to end Southern Miss' hopes and season.
"Definitely not the way we wanted to go out," said Slater, who went 5 for 8 in the two games with two runs scored and two RBIs. "It was pretty heart-wrenching. We had a great season and it's something we will have for our lifetime."
Spencer Price (4-1) earned the win with three innings of one-run relief. Riley Self picked up his eighth save with two innings of one–hit relief.
Sandlin (10-2) took the loss, allowing four runs on four hits, while walking three and striking out five.
Burdeaux, who played his last game as a Golden Eagle, said he would have nothing but the best memories despite the jarring end.
"This ride has been unbelievable," he said. "It's definitely one I'm never gonna forget with these guys here and what this coaching staff did for me."