For much of the 2018 season, the talk around Southern Miss baseball was the potency of the Golden Eagles’ big bats and potent offense.
But over a five-day stretch at MGM Park in Biloxi, USM rode its pitching to claim a 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship presented by The First.
Junior right-hander Mason Strickland won Most Valuable Player honors after throwing a three-hit, complete-game 6-0 shutout over Charlotte to put top-seeded USM in the championship game for the third consecutive season.
Then, in Sunday afternoon’s finale, junior left-hander Adam Jackson and senior right-hander Keller Bradford combined to limit the hard-hitting, third-seeded Owls on three runs on seven hits as the Golden Eagles claimed their second postseason title in three years with a 12-3 victory.
USM (43-16) also won the league’s regular-season title, giving the Golden Eagles both in the same season for just the second time (2003). The tournament title comes with C-USA’s automatic bid into the NCAA postseason, the third consecutive year the Golden Eagles have made the 64-team field.
“I’m just so proud of everybody because it’s so hard to do what we just did,” USM coach Scott Berry said, “to win the regular-season conference title and then try to hold off seven other teams to win this automatic bid.
“The attitude was all about the mental.”
And about the pitching.
USM’s five starters in the C-USA postseason, Nick Sandlin, Stevie Powers, Walker Powell, Strickland and Jackson, posted a combined 1.05 earned run average.
“Those guys really responded,” Berry said. “That was pretty special (Sunday), what Mason Strickland did, covers nine innings in 92 pitches, and really saves the rest of our pitching staff.
Then, in the final, Jackson had thrown 2 1/3 scoreless innings when he was removed from the game with an injury.
Bradford (3-1) entered and did not allow a run until he gave up a two-out, three-run home run to Gunnar Lambert in the seventh inning.
“We were kind of hoping we could catch lightning in a bottle,” FAU John McCormack said. “They just had too much firepower. Congratulations to them. I thought there guys pitched great.
“I thought we had a good run here, though I wish it would have ended different. But, hey, give credit to them.”
At that point, USM had built a 5-0 lead on two-run home runs by Matt Wallner and Bryant Bowen and a run-scoring single by Wallner.
Following Lambert’s shot, USM added two runs in the seventh on Gabe Montenegro’s solo home run and a run-scoring single by Daniel Keating. The Golden Eagles added four more runs in the eighth on RBI hits by Wallner, Hunter Slater and Matthew Guidry and a two-run double by Keating.
USM’s 12 runs were the most in a final since 2007, and the Golden Eagles became the first team to play twice on Sunday and win the conference championship.
FAU starter Nick Prather (0-3) took the loss, allowing four runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings.
“You get that momentum going, that’s what we do,” said Wallner, who had a career-high four hits in 6the championship game, driving in four runs and scoring twice. “That’s how we roll, and hopefully, we can use that momentum going into the regional.”
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