HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Florida Atlantic University may have won the Conference USA baseball battle this weekend at Pete Taylor Park, taking two games in the best-of-three series.
But the University of Southern Mississippi may have won the war, exiting the weekend showdown between C-USA’s top teams the same way it entered: alone atop the conference standings.
USM catcher Cole Donaldson mashed a bad-hop single off the shoulder of FAU third baseman Joe Montes into short left field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to score Matt Guidry for a walk-off 8-7 victory over the Owls.
“It shows we’re never going to give up, that you can’t ever count us out,” said Donaldson, who has accounted for the last two of USM’s four walk-off wins this season.
By salvaging the series’ finale, the Golden Eagles (31-15, 18-6) remained a game ahead of the Owls (32-15, 17-7) with six conference games to play.
“(Sunday) just had to be looked at as a championship Sunday,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “One team was going to walk away with first place in the conference and the other one was going away second place. So, in a sense, that was a championship feeling, and I think you saw that in the play of both clubs.”
After being outscored 26-14 in the first two games of the series, including an 18-9 bushwhacking Saturday, USM twice built four-run leads Sunday at 6-2 in the fifth inning and 7-3 in the sixth.
The Owls pecked away at the lead with single runs in the sixth and seventh inning before tying the game with a three-run eighth inning.
“They played very, very hard, Florida Atlantic,” Berry said. “They didn’t go away. They played the first two games very well, in fact, they outplayed us, in all honesty.
“Sunday, we probably played our worst defensively, but we came out with the win. So, an ugly win is better than a pretty loss.”
With the game tied 7-7, FAU closer Zach Schneider got two outs to open the ninth inning before Matt Guidry nearly ended the game himself, with his long fly caroming off the Hattiesburg Clinic sign on the right-center field fence for a double.
“I thought the game was over right there with Guidry,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “I thought that was out.”
Instead, it left Guidry at second base. With first base open, Hunter Slater was walked intentionally to get to Donaldson, who had entered the game in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement at catcher for Bryant Bowen.
Schneider missed with his first two pitches and Donaldson hammered the third offering down the line, where it one-hopped Montes, who had played a brilliant third base throughout the series. After Guidry scored easily, Donaldson waited at first base with folded arms for the celebratory rush to reach him.
“That’s always fun,” Donladson said. “You look up, and there’s this swarm of players coming at you. It’s a real rush.”
McCormack laid the loss at the Owls’ feet for leaving the door open.
“You just can’t leave it like (that),” McCormack said of the tie game going into USM’s last at-bat. “I have been here too many times, and (stuff) like this happens here.
“But credit them, and I think what you saw this weekend was two of the conference’s best teams have a little battle royale. We were fortunate to win this series and hopefully, this is not the last time that we will see them this year.”
FAU took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Wilfredo Alvarez’ single off USM starter Stevie Powers before USM tied it the bottom of the inning on Danny Lynch’s single.
USM took a 2-1 lead on Slater’s 10th home run of the season in the third inning before Alvarez scored in the fifth inning on a throwing error by USM.
The Golden Eagles grabbed a 6-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning on Guidry’s double, Bowen’s single and Hoard’s two-run single.
After FAU got a sacrifice fly to close within 6-3 in the top of the sixth, Montenegro got the run back with his third home run of the season with two outs on the bottom of the inning.
But FAU got sacrifice flies in both the sixth and seventh inning to get within 7-4, then scored three runs in the eighth inning on a bases-loaded walk, another sacrifice fly and Montes’ double.
Hunter Stanley (5-1), who came on in the eighth inning with bases loaded and no outs, got FAU in order in the top of the ninth to set up the Golden Eagles’ heroics in the bottom of the inning.
Stanley allowed a hit and walked one with three strikeouts in his two innings.
Schneider (3-2), who leads C-USA with 11 saves, was charged with a run on two hits in 1 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out three.
With the win, USM improved to 20-6 at Pete Taylor Park this season, marking the fifth consecutive season that the Golden Eagles had won at least 20 games at home.
Guidry, who had two doubles and was hit by a pitch for the 20th time this season Sunday, scored the game-winner among his two runs scored. He also extended his “reached-base-safely” streak to 41 consecutive games.
Hoard and Montenegro also had two hits apiece. The former drove in two and scored once, while the latter scored twice and drove in a run. Slater scored twice.
FAU had series-low seven hits. Alvarez had two hits and drove in three runs while Montes also had a two-hit game.
USM will be off for the next five days before visiting Rice University in a best-of-three C-USA series starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday.