The University of Southern Miss found itself on the other side of the looking glass Saturday night at MGM Park.
A year after the Golden Eagles rallied in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off home run against the University of North Carolina-Charlotte to force a win-or-go-home contest, the 49ers returned the favor in the semifinals of the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship.
Second baseman Tommy Bullock’s three-run, walk-off home run capped a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning as the fourth-seeded 49ers topped the top-seeded Golden Eagles 7-4.
“We talked about that on the bus on the way down here,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said. “We were three outs away from being in the championship game last year and (2018 staff ace Josh) Maciejewski was the guy who gave up the home run, and it messed with him some.
“Bur he made the decision, along with our team, that we wanted to try and get back to this point again and have a chance to be able to compete again.”
With their first victory over USM since 2014, the 49ers (34-23) forced a second game with the Golden Eagles (41-16) at 9 a.m. Sunday. The winner will advance to the Conference USA title game scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday.
The USM-Charlotte winner will face the winner of Saturday’s late rematch between third-seeded Florida Atlantic and seventh-seeded Rice.
FAU defeated Rice 7-4 earlier Saturday to force a second game between the two .
In 2017, USM had come out of the elimination bracket to face an unbeaten Charlotte, and had to beat the 49ers twice in order to play for the C-USA baseball crown.
Taylor Braley hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Golden Eagles scored five runs in their final two at-bats to claim a 6-5 victory against the 49ers in that initial game.
Flash forward a year. The unbeaten Golden Eagles were clinging to a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning and Charlotte, which had come out of the elimination bracket, was down to its last three outs.
But Todd Elwood chopped an infield single against USM reliever J.C. Keys (3-5) and moved to third on a pair of wild pitches.
After third baseman Jackson Mims walked, left fielder Drew Ober hit a grounder to the right side that scored Elwood with the tying run and sent Mims to second..A single by shortstop Hunter Jones sent Mims to third and Keys to the dugout in favor of Matt Wallner.
Bullock, who had one home run coming into the game, lifted Wallner’s second pitch over the wall in left field, the same spot Braley had hit his homer the year before.
“It’s déjà vu or whatever you call it,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “Braley does it to them, and (Bullock) does it to us. It’s baseball.
“It’s a great game, it really is, because you never know what’s going to happen..
The 49ers rallied from two-run deficits twice, using seven pitchers to contain USM’s offensive outbursts.
USM wound up with nine hits and received eight walks from Charlotte pitchers. But the Golden Eagles stranded 14 baserunners, including nine in scoring position.
“We missed on some opportunities there early, and their pitchers minimized some things,” Berry said.
In the first inning, USM was the beneficiaries of four walks, including designated hitter Daniel Keating’s free pass with the bases loaded. But the Golden Eagles left the inning with the bases loaded and a 1-0 lead.
USM took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning when Keating singled, was sacrificed to second and scored on Matthew Guidry’s single.
But the Golden Eagles stranded a runner at third with one out in the fourth inning and then at second and third with no outs in the fifth inning.
By then, the 49ers had tied the game 2-2.
Charlotte catcher Zack Smith caught hold of a Walker Powell offering and smashed it off the scoreboard past the right-center field fence to get the 49ers within 2-1. A run-scoring single by center fielder Reece Hampton gave the 49ers their second run in the fifth inning.
USM surged back ahead in the sixth. Shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd singled with one out and scored when left fielder Gabe Montenegro tripled into the right-field corner. Moments later, Montenegro scored on a wild pitch to give the Golden Eagles a 4-2 lead.
Charlotte scored an unearned run in the seventh inning to set up the ninth-inning drama.
USM got its third solid pitching start of the tournament .Powell allowed three runs (two earned) on eight hits. He walked no one and struck out five.
Phillip Perry (2-3) picked up the win by getting the final two outs in the top of the ninth inning.
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