BILOXI, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi right-hander Nick Sandlin, Conference USA's Pitcher of the Year, can be awfully tough on an opposing batting order.
He can be just as tough an act to follow.
But USM's Stevie Powers has more than held his own as the second man in the Golden Eagles' rotation and the junior left-hander came up big Saturday afternoon in the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship.
Powers, who had not pitched since May 5 because of tightness in the forearm of his throwing arm, allowed two runs on four hits over seven innings and the Golden Eagles never trailed in a 5-3 victory over the University of Texas-San Antonio at MGM Park.
"We've won 41 games because we've done a lot of things right," USM coach Scott Berry said. "(Friday), we did a lot of things right and we needed to beat a really good UTSA team (that) has been playing very good here at the end of the year."
Powers, who has spent the bulk of the season in the weekend rotation, said Sandlin's four-hit, 2-0 gem Thursday against the University of Alabama-Birmingham in USM's tourney-opening game gave the Golden Eagles a huge boost.
"Coming after Nick Sandlin, that's tough to follow up," Powers said with a smile. "It's been a tough job all year for me.
"But (Sandlin) came out and set the tone for us (Thursday), and I just wanted to come out and emulate him and put ourselves in a good position for (Saturday)."
With the win, the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles (41-15) moved on to the championship semifinals and will take on the winner of Friday's final elimination game between fourth-seeded University of North Carolina-Charlotte and UTSA at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Sophomore right=hander Walker Powell (7-2) is expected to get Saturday's starting nod for the Golden Eagles.
If USM wins that game, it would move onto Sunday's 1 p.m. title game for a third consecutive season.
We're sitting pretty," said third baseman Luke Reynolds, who turned a game-ending double play with a whirling tag on a runner coming into third, before righting himself for a strong throw to first.
"We've just got to keep playing hard and keep playing together, and we can win this."
USM junior outfielder Matt Wallner drove in two runs with a first-inning single before skying his 14th home run of the season in the third inning to help the top-seeded Golden Eagles a three-run cushion it would rely on over the remainder of the game..
"It was absolutely crucial," Wallner said of Friday's win. "The weather, you never know what's going on. We don't have to wear ourselves out (Friday night) and play another game, which is huge, and we're able to save our pitching a little bit, which is big-time."
Wallner and designated hitter Daniel Keating drove in first-inning runs with singles off UTSA left-hander Steven Dressler (5-4). Wallner also sent a Dressler offering far, far over the wall in right-center field in the third inning.
"That one felt pretty good off the bat," Wallner said.
But UTSA (32-22) fought back
Powers (5-1) had retired the first 10 batters he faced before hitting left fielder Ryan Stacy with a pitch, giving the fifth-seeded Roadrunner their first baserunner. One out later, the bases were empty again after first baseman Tony Beam cracked his sixth home run of the season to get UTSA within 3-2.
USM shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd's single in the sixth inning bumped the lead back to 4-2, but the Roadrunners would keep the pressure on until the last out.
With two outs in the seventh inning, third baseman Chris Estrada hit a single and catcher Garrett Moon a double to put runners on second and third. But Powers got a grounder to short to end the threat.
Senior Trent Driver relieved Powers to start the eighth inning and allowed an unearned run on a single by center fielder Trent Bowles to make the score 4-3.
But Driver stranded the tying run at third to leave USM up going into the final inning.
In the ninth, USM loaded the bases with one out on singles by Boyd, second baseman Matthew Guidry, Boyd and left fielder Gabe Montenegro, and scored an insurance run on a four-pitch by Reynolds.
"That's your conference player of the year right there," Berry said. "Get the run in."
In the ninth, Driver hit right fielder Dylan Rock and gave up a one-out single to Moon. But he got UTSA shortstop Joshua Lamb to ground to Reynolds, who stepped in to grab the ball on the hop, whirled to lunge and tag Rock on the leg as he came churning toward third and then whipped around to peg Lamb at first.
For a moment, there was a low murmur as the majority partisan USM digested what had just happened before a roar of realization erupted.
"We missed some opportunities to tie the game or possibly even win the game there at the end," UTSA coach Jason Marshall said. "But they're Southern Miss. It's going to take a lot to win. Hopefully, we can win another game and come back and take another shot at them."
Berry said he just wants his Golden Eagles' to keep an eye on the prize they are chasing this week.
"When you're trying to send a message to the (NCAA) regional committee, don't give them a reason to leave you out," Berry said. "Like I said before this started, there's only going to be one team that's going to be guaranteed one of those 31 automatic bids, and it's the guy who wins on Sunday.
"Everybody is fighting to be that guy, and we're no different. So this win was really big in what we're trying to do in building that resume."