HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Miss scored seven runs in the first two innings Saturday morning and then hung on for an 8-6 Conference USA baseball victory over University of North Carolina-Charlotte at Pete Taylor Park.
With the win, USM (24-13, 14-4 C-USA) swept the three-game series from the 49ers (14-24-1) and remained breathing down the neck of conference front-runner Florida Atlantic University.
Matt Wallner drove in four runs with a pair of home runs Saturday, giving him three on the series and 10 on the season.
Wallner, a junior, has hit at least 10 home runs in each of his first three seasons with the Golden Eagles and is tied for fourth on the all-time list with Fred Cooley at 45 homers.
Charlotte had jumped out 2-0 in the first inning on Rafi Vazquez’ two-run single, but USM answered with four runs in the bottom of the inning.
Bryant Bowen extended his team-best hitting streak to 21 games with an RBI-single before Wallner unloaded to right field for a three-run home run off Charlotte starter Carson Pinkney.
“It’s been huge,” Wallner said. “I think we scored at least two runs in the first inning in every game this weekend, so that was big for us to get going right away.”
The Golden Eagles went ahead 7-2 after two innings. Matt Guidry connected on a two-run homer and Hunter Slater followed with a solo shot.
For Guidry, it was his fourth home run of the year, while for Slater, it was his sixth of the season.
The 49ers came back, scoring a run on Dominick Cammarata’s single in the fourth inning, and then adding two more runs in the seventh inning on consecutive RBI-grounders.
Charlotte kept the pressure on in the eighth.
After USM reliever Cody Carroll walked Vazquez to open the frame, Tommy Bullock ripped a double down the left-field line to put runners at second and third bases.
J.C. Keys came out the bullpen, and promptly hit Drew Ober to load the bases with no outs.
But Keys got a tapper back to the mound for a force at the plate and then struck out Cammarata, who had been 3-of-3. Keys then closed the inning by getting pinch-hitter Jesse Gonzales to ground out.
“Getting that first out, that always kind of calms everything down,” Keys said. “Then, it’s a matter of filling up the zone and competing.”
Wallner lined his second homer to right field in the bottom of the eighth inning for what turned out be an all-important insurance run.
“The eighth inning was the most important inning of the game, both the top half and the bottom half,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. ”Keys comes in and inherits runners at second and third, creates a bases-loaded situation, but then gets the comebacker, punchout and groundout to get out of the inning.
“Then, you get the big insurance run in the bottom half. We needed that run. It made a difference in what they had to do.”
Charlotte pulled nearly the same stunt in the ninth, but instead of a walk, Carson Johnson singled to open the inning off USM left-handed reliever Ryan Och.
Todd Elwood then followed with a double off Och that left runners on second and third bases with no outs.
Tony Yett’s sacrifice fly brought a run home, and after Och walked Vazquez, Hunter Stanley was summoned from the bullpen for the second time in two days.
Stanley got a strikeout and hard grounder to the mound to end the rally and pick up his first save of the season.
“Can’t say enough about him,” Berry said. “(Friday), he finished off a game, didn’t get a save. (Saturday), he got his first save. Once again, inherits runners, first and third, and got us two big outs to preserve the win.”
Charlotte got two hits each from Johnson and Vazquez, outhitting USM 11-8. Cole Donaldson joined Wallner as the only other Golden Eagle with multiple hits.
USM freshman Danny Lynch saw a 13-game hitting streak come to an end.
USM starter Mason Strickland (4-0) picked up the win, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits. He struck out two, walked none.
Pinkney (2-4) allowed seven runs on six hits in two innings to take the loss, walking two and striking out two.
USM will play five games next week, starting by hosting University of Louisiana-Lafayette at 6 p.m. Tuesday before heading to Maestri Field to take on the University of New Orleans at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.