Conference USA’s Pitcher of the Year, Nick Sandlin, lived up to every line of his billing Thursday in the opening round of the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship at MGM Park.
The junior right-hander turned in a complete-game shutout, scattering four hits while striking out 12 and walking just one as top-seeded University of Southern Mississippi (40-15) eased past eighth-seeded University of Alabama-Birmingham 2-0.
“The storyline was Nick Sandlin and his ability to take the mound and dominate,” USM baseball coach Scott Berry said.
The victory puts the Golden Eagles into a winner’s bracket game at 12:30 p.m. Friday where USM will face fifth seeded University of San Antonio-Texas (32-22). The Roadrunners defeated fourth-seeded University of North Carolina-Charlotte 11-1 in Thursday’s first game.
Sandlin (9-0) used 118 pitches to log his third shutout of the season and second of the Blazers. In two outings against UAB, Sandlin limited the Blazers to 10 hits and three walks while striking out 21.
Sandlin tied the C-USA postseason mark for the third-most strikeouts in a tournament game while moving into fourth place on USM’s single-season strikeout list with 135.
“He understands what his job is, and that’s to keep the opposition from scoring,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “We’re just grateful that he was able to take the mound (Thursday) and that we were able to scratch a couple of runs for him.”
USM needed Sandlin’s “A” game because UAB (21-32) gave the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles all they could handle.
Left-hander Ryan Ruggles (2-4) allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits, while walking three and striking out four. Right-handed reliever Ryan Wesson allowed just one hit in three innings of shutout baseball while striking out four.
“I am proud of every single aspect of our team,” said UAB coach Brian Shoop, who guided the Blazers back to C-USA’s postseason after a two-year absence. “Nick Sandlin was the difference.
“To participate on this stage, it’s just so important for our program. But, again, we just ran into Nick Sandlin, who’s just as good as there is out there.”
USM left-hander Stevie Powers was expected to start the first game of the tournament, which originally had been scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
But weather delays pushed the game into Thursday, and put Sandlin on track to make his 14th start of the season in what turned out to be the Golden Eagles’ postseason opener.
“Found out last night,” Sandlin said. “Stevie was going to throw the first game, but then (with the game being bumped), with all the rest and setting up for next week (NCAA postseason), we just decided I was going to throw (Thursday).”
USM, which posted 40 wins in a season for the third consecutive season, scored its first run in the second inning without benefit of a hit.
All-C-USA outfielder Matt Wallner walked, went to second on an error, third on a hit by pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly.
The Golden Eagles made it 2-0 in the sixth. After right fielder Mason Irby and third baseman Luke Reynolds singled, Wallner walked to load the bases. First baseman Hunter Slater singled sharply to right field to score another run, but that was all USM could manage as Wesson came out of the bullpen to shut down the rally.
“UAB, they really battled us,” Berry said. “They gave us fits. Their pitchers did an outstanding job pitching out of innings and really minimizing.”
Sandlin was in trouble just twice.
In the second inning, UAB first baseman Thomas Johns doubled off the left-field wall and catcher Stephen Dobbs singled to shortstop. A sacrifice bunt moved both runners up a base and Sandlin hit third baseman Price Visintainer to load the bases.
But the next two Blazers struck out as the Golden Eagles escaped the inning.
Sandlin retired the next 12 batters before allowing a leadoff single in the seventh. He promptly got a double-play grounder and followed with a groundout to third base to end the inning and looked locked in to go the distance.
“Definitely, the goal was to try and help save the bullpen for the rest of the tournament, and I was lucky enough to keep the pitch count down for the first five or six innings, and after that, I realized I’d be trying to go the distance,” Sandlin said.
Sandlin worked around a hit batter in the eighth inning, and had to dodge a two-on, one-out situation in the ninth.
Second baseman Carter Pharis doubled with one out, bringing up Johns, who already had doubled and singled earlier in the game.
Johns worked Sandlin for his lone walk of the game before he got a strikeout and then a popout to end the game.
“That one run couldn’t beat us right there because we had a two-run lead,” Sandlin said of Pharis. “That lefty (Johns) was seeing me pretty well (Thursday), so I wasn’t going to really let him beat me. It kind of sucked to put the tying run on first base, but I had a more favorable matchup with the (next two) hitters right there.”
Irby, who extended his hitting streak to a team-best 16 games, had two of USM’s five hits with a pair of singles.
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