Junior right-hander Mason Strickland had started exactly one baseball game for Southern Mississippi this season and his longest outing on the mound had amounted to just one out more than five iinnings.
Sunday, Strickland turned in the pitching performance of his USM career and gave the Golden Eagles exactly what they needed at the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship.
Strickland tossed a complete-game, three-hit shutout as the top-seeded Golden Eagles moved into the their third consecutive Conference USA championship title game with a 6-0 victory over Charlotte..
Strickland (2-1) allowed just four baserunners with only one 49er reaching scoring position. Strickland walked one, struck out four, and set the pace in a ballgame that took just an hour, 58 minutes, to play.
“I’ll you what, Mason Strickland, man, what a momentum-killer he was (Sunday) to them,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said.
The Golden Eagles (42-16), who won the tournament crown in 2016 and finished runner-up in 2017, will take on third-seeded Florida Atlantic University (40-16-1) beat Rice twice Saturday to earn a first-ever spot in the C-USA finals.
Southern Miss and fourth-seeded Charlotte (34-24) were playing for the second time after the 49ers forced a win-or-go-home game Sunday morning. Charlotte had rallied for four runs in the bottom of the ninth i9nning Saturday night, with Tommy Bullock hitting a walk-off, three-run home run to give the49ers a 7-4 win.
“(Charlotte) was riding a lot of momentum after their emotional win (Saturday) night, and we went home pretty depressed and frustrated,” Berry said.
“But, you know, we had to flush it, and be ready to come back, and that’s the great thing about baseball. There’s always the next day. We had that opportunity. Both teams had their backs against the wall, do or die, and our guys showed up big.”
Southern Miss junior first baseman Hunter Slater certainly did.
The Golden Eagles stranded 14 runners in Saturday’s loss and then two more in the first inning against Charlotte starter Joey Cooner (3-5), who started against Southern Miss for the second consecutive day after not getting out of the first inning Saturday night.
USM loaded the bases in the third inning, and seemed on the verge of coming up empty again when Slater ripped a ground-rule double to right field to put the Golden Eagle sup 2-0.
“Last night, we left 14 guys on, and we missed so many opportunities that, honestly, played big into (Saturday’s 7-4 loss to Charlotte),” Berry said. “(Sunday), we started out and missed out on some opportunities there early, but I really think that one right there was the one that broke the ice and kind of pushed us forward.”
Matt Wallner and Daniel Keating each hit solo home runs in the sixth inning for a 4-0 lead
For Wallner, it was his second homer of the championship and allowed him to tie for the team lead with 15 home runs. Keating hit his sixth homer of the season to go with a double.
In the seventh, Gabe Montenegro walked an d scored on Matthew Guidry’s opposite-field double to make the score 5-0 and Luke Reynolds’ single brought home Guidry with Southern Miss’ final.
“Their pitcher was good,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said.. “He was down in the strike zone, changing speeds, and we didn’t the make the adjustments that we normally make. The effort was there, the mentality was there, the plan was there. We just didn’t execute like we had been lately.
“Their guy did a really good job executing pitches, and the balls we did hit hard at them were hit in spots where they could make good plays defensively. They just played a little better than we did.”
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