Baseball Scores Early, Hangs On to Beat Marshall 3-2; Advances to Championship Game
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - For about three hours after Chase Scott knocked the first pitch he had seen in three games off the wall in left field, five Southern Miss pitchers dipped and dodged their way through a dangerous and dogged Marshall batting order.
The result: c loser Nick Sandlin corralling a final-out comebacker to cinch a tightrope-tense 3-2 victory over Marshall that sent the Golden Eagles into Sunday's 1 p.m. title game of the 2016 Conference USA Baseball Championship.
Third-seeded Southern Miss (39-18) will be making its sixth appearance in the C-USA title game and the first in front of its home crowd since 2009.
"Every program puts in a lot of time, effort and work to get to this point," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "Knowing that we are one of those two teams is a special feeling."
The Golden Eagles will play the winner of Saturday's second meeting between fourth-seeded Rice and fifth-seeded Louisiana Tech for the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA postseason.
Louisiana Tech had beaten Rice 13-10 in Saturday's opening game to force a winner-take-all contest.
The Golden Eagles avoided the same fate by making a 3-1 lead in the first stand up against the second-seeded Herd (34-21).
Over the next eight innings, Marshall put runners on base in seven of them, including six innings with at least one runner in scoring position.
But three Golden Eagle freshmen, including starter Walker Powell and relievers Stevie Powers (1-1) and Sandlin, and an old hand, senior Jake Winston, escaped jam after jam after jam, stranding 13 Marshall baserunners, including eight in scoring position.
"I didn't think three runs in the first inning would be enough to win the game, but it was, with the arms that we threw out there and how the guys performed out there on the mound," Berry said.
Marshall coach Jeff Waggoner said the Herd just could not come up with the big hit to break through against the Golden Eagles.
"They played their hearts out," Waggoner said. "It took everybody to keep us in the game and we just fell short.
"We didn't have the big hits we needed. We had every opportunity to break open that game, and in the end, we just didn't. But hats off to those guys for making the pitches and playing a great defensive game." One of the biggest came in the seventh inning, when left fielder DJ Gee and second baseman Aaron Bossi led off with singles that put men on first and third with no outs.
Catcher Chuckie Robinson threw out Bossi trying to steal, with Gee holding third, for the first out, and after Marshall first baseman Tommy Lane walked, third baseman Tyler Ratliff grounded to Southern Miss shortstop Nick Dawson, who started an inning-ending double play.
"The big double play there in the seventh, first-and-third, nobody out, that was huge," Berry said. "But I'll tell you what, Winston, and Powers and Sandlin and even Walker Powell, they all showed up (Saturday) and gave us great, great outings from the pitching staff."
Scott was making his first appearance in the tournament since being struck just below the left cheekbone by a pitch Wednesday night.
He laced the first offering he saw from Marshall starter Chase Boster (8-2) just over the glove of Gee at the left-field wall , giving the Golden Eagles a 3-0 lead.
"In that situation, I just wanted to put a ball in play," Scott said of the bases-loaded opportunity. "I just told myself not to be gunshy after what happened on Wednesday. I just looked for a pitch I could handle, and it ended up working out in my favor."
Marshall scored on Bossi's RBI-single in the first, but couldn't get another until center fielder Corey Bird's single off Southern Miss reliever Luke Lowery with two outs in the eighth inning.
But Sandlin came in to Gee on a fly ball to left field the inning, and then after giving up an infield single to Bossi to lead off the ninth, Sandlin struck out two and got Ryne Deen to ground back to the mound.
"Yeah, there were some nerves, but it wasn't too bad," said Sandlin, who notched his 11th save of the season. "I've been in some situations before. But the crowd was a little extra loud (Saturday). It was a great crowd.
And not only are Berry and his Golden Eagles expecting another large crowd Sunday, but are hoping to play before the home fans again next week after the NCAA Regional sites are announced.
"With our RPI, I think we have positioned ourselves, definitely, for high consideration to host right here," Berry said. "This atmosphere, everything that we have done as a program and the way our school and community embraces it, I can't see why we would not get one."