It certainly wasn’t pretty — and it looked like anything but a guarantee early on — but Southern Miss took care of business in the Hattiesburg Regional opener Friday, rallying to defeat Illinois-Chicago 8-7. It was an accomplishment that should make USM fans sleep a little easier but not quite soundly. While the Golden Eagles (49-14) avoid the first elimination game, they still have to face the winner of Mississippi State at South Alabama in the winner’s game at 6 p.m. Saturday.
South Alabama (39-19 heading into Friday) won its way into the NCAA Tournament, winning 14 of its final 16 games including sweeping the Sun Belt Tournament.
The Bulldogs (36-24) won two games in the SEC Tournament, which was enough to secure an at-large bid and the No. 2 seed in the regional.
“I think that’s what makes this one of the toughest regionals in the country,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “I have it as one of the top four of the 16 regionals.”
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Berry played coy during the post-game press conference, declining to name a starter until after the conclusion of the MSU-USA game.
If he chooses to go with Taylor Braley, the junior right-hander has already beaten both potential opponents.
He allowed five runs in seven innings against MSU on March 21 as USM held on for a 7-5 victory.
In a 4-2 win over USA on March 28, Braley scattered two runs in 6 1/3 innings of work.
Since the MSU start, Braley has only allowed four runs once. In his last start, Braley threw eight scoreless innings against UTSA on May 26.
“From the Alabama game to right now, his command has gotten a lot better,” Berry said. “His secondary pitches have gotten better as he’s gone along. That comes from experience. There were two years there where he didn’t hardly throw. He had thrown only 5 innings prior to this year.
“The work load he’s given us and balancing that with being an every day player, that’s a credit to the competitor he is.”
Heading into Friday’s potential start, Braley is 6-2 with a 3.30 ERA. He also boasts 74 strikeouts and 20 walks in 76 1/3 innings.
“It’s just figuring out what to do at what point and mixing it up,” Braley said. “I’m not throwing the same pitch multiple times. I have to stay low in the zone, sink the ball and let the defense work. I’m not trying to do it all by myself.”
A lot was made prior to the regional about host USM playing at 1 p.m. Friday. The energized crowd of 4,239 fans didn’t seem to mind the early start, however. Berry expects an even better environment Saturday night, regardless of the opponent.
“Oooh man. Everyone who was mad (they couldn’t make) 1 p.m., they’ll be here at 6 p.m. — along with the ones who were here today,” he said. “I would think it will be a very exciting environment.”