With his team trailing 5-4 to Charlotte Saturday afternoon, Southern Miss hitting coach Chad Caillet walked up to Taylor Braley before his at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.
“I was sitting there talking to (former USM slugger and current assistant B.A. Vollmuth) and (Caillet) said, 'If you're anything like B.A. was, he would have walked up to me in 2009 and said, 'I'm fixing to win this game,'” Braley recalled.
The junior third baseman/pitcher didn't shy away from the challenge.
“If (Mason) Irby gets on, I'm going to do it,” he answered.
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Irby did indeed reach base to start the ninth with a single to left.
After working Charlotte reliever Josh Maciejewski to a full count, Braley pulled a pitch well over the left field wall to send MGM Park into a frenzy.
Final – Southern Miss 6, Charlotte 5.
Braley tossed his helmet high as he approached home plate where a mob of his teammates waited on him.
The win allowed USM to get within one victory of Sunday's 1 p.m. Conference USA title game at MGM Park. The two teams were set to meet again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday to decide who advances.
Rice throttled Florida Atlantic 13-2 in seven innings Saturday morning to easily advance to the championship contest.
Braley admitted that the adrenaline was still pumping “a lot” about 10 minutes after he kept the Golden Eagles alive in their defense of last season's C-USA tournament title.
“I struggled hitting last night and today for the most part until that last at-bat,” Braley said. “Obviously, that's the biggest one. Coaches say your biggest at-bat is the last one. I took that into thought and just flushed everything that happened before that and went and got it done.”
Braley's homer capped off a rally that allowed USM to come back after trailing 5-1 headed into the bottom of the eighth.
USM coach Scott Berry had an inkling that Braley was about to pull off something special when he stepped to the plate in the ninth.
“I was in the third base box and I said, 'He's going to hit one out here,'” Berry said. “I could just feel it. You can never count this team out. That's what they've shown all year.”
With the victory, USM (47-13) tied the program mark for most wins in a season and likely erased any doubt that it would host an NCAA regional next week in Hattiesburg.
Charlotte dropped to 34-23.
On the mound
While Braley provided the heroics at the plate, junior right-hander Hayden Roberts delivered on the pitcher's mound.
USM starting pitcher Stevie Powers worked through a pair of bumpy innings, giving up two earned runs on five hits.
Powers was replaced to begin the third by Roberts, who kept the Golden Eagles in the game. He allowed two runs on three hits in 5 2/3 innings. The right-hander struck out three and walked none in one of his most efficient outings of the season.
“I was just letting it go,” Roberts said. “I tried to paint the bottom zone. I just wanted to keep them beating the ground.”
The USM rally began in the eighth when Hunter Slater tripled down the right field line to bring home Braley and Matt Wallner.
Pascagoula native Tracy Hadley followed Slater's hit with a single to left to bring home a run, cutting the Charlotte lead to 5-4.
It was a moment of redemption for Hadley, who committed a double-error in the second inning at third base that led to a Charlotte run.
“That's what you've got to be able to do,” Berry said. “People say the game is about failure. The game is about opportunity. Failure enters into it sometimes, but it's all about opportunity. You've got to be able to go from one situation to the other.”
Nick Sandlin, who threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief, picked up the victory to improve to 9-1.
Charlotte wasted a strong pitching performance by Jonah Patten, who typically closes out games for Charlotte. He held USM to one run on three hits in five innings, striking out seven and working around five walks.
Maciejewski (5-5) took the loss, allowing three runs on five hits in 1 inning.