Tracy Hadley delivered on the big stage yet again Sunday, helping send Southern Miss into the title round of the Hattiesburg Regional.
The Pascagoula native broke open a tight contest with a 3-run home run in the fifth inning of the USM baseball team's 8-3 victory over South Alabama.
The Golden Eagles (50-14) will play the winner of Sunday night's Mississippi State-South Alabama game at 1 p.m. on Monday for the regional title. If USM loses, it will play the same opponent again at 6 p.m.
USM is in great shape as the lone undefeated team remaining in the regional, one win away from clinching the program's first Super Regional bid since 2009.
Hadley probably would have been voted the least likely to clear the fence Sunday in a potent USM lineup, but there was little doubt when it left the bat.
It was the biggest moment in his two years at USM, where he has received inconsistent playing time and occasionally battled injuries.
There was no need to ask Hadley how good it felt to deliver in a crucial winner's bracket contest.
“Can you tell by my smile?,” Hadley quipped. “That felt good, man. I've been up and down this whole season. I haven't been really hitting many barrels and that one felt good.”
‘That’s my son!’
Hadley's family was located in the bleachers above third base. His father, also named Tracy, repeatedly shouted, “That's my son!,” as the senior jogged around the bases.
Hadley has always had a flair for clutch moments on the basketball court and baseball diamond. He hit a walk-off home run to give Pascagoula High School the South State title in 2012 and helped lead the Panthers' basketball team to Jackson in his junior and senior years.
On Sunday, he made contact for the biggest long ball of his college career. On a 2-1 count, he sent USA left-hander Zach Melton's fastball just to the left of center for a 3-run shot.
It was just the second homer of the year for Hadley and the third of his career.
“He had been painting fastballs all game,” Hadley said. “I backed off the plate a little because my weakness is in. I just stuck with the approach. He gave me one over the plate and I put a good swing on it.”
Junior Taylor Braley continued his outstanding postseason play for the Golden Eagles, picking up the win in 5 2/3 innings and hitting a solo home run in the fifth.
Braley (7-2) struggled out of the gate, giving up a two-run home run to Thomas Colton in the first inning for a 2-1 USA lead, but recovered to hold the Jaguars to three runs on eight hits. He struck out four and walked two.
“It was really just mixing it up, not throwing fastballs,” Braley said of his rebound on the mound. “They were all sitting dead read fastball. Early on, I was leaving the ball up in the zone. I couldn't find the zone at the beginning, but the changeup really came in and that helped.”
Seeing it good
Braley's home run in the fifth was his 17th of the season and one of his longest, easily clearing the scoreboard in left field.
“I'm seeing it pretty good,” said Braley, who has three homers since the end of the regular season. “I'm just trying to not do too much.”
Even with senior leadoff man Dylan Burdeaux in an 0-for-21 slump, the Golden Eagles continue to come up with big innings at the plate.
“There are no easy outs in the lineup,” USA coach Mark Calvi. “They don't give away a lot of at-bats. There are a bunch of kids in that lineup that have been around the block several times with this program. They're experienced. They don't fall for the old banana-in-a-tailpipe trick.”
Stevie Powers, Nick Sandlin and Hayden Roberts combined to throw 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief to preserve the USM lead.
USA starting pitcher Tyler Carr, who gave up three runs in three innings, took the loss to drop his record to 7-2.
USM coach Scott Berry said that he has not yet decided who he will throw in Monday's 1 p.m. game. Junior right-hander Colt Smith and sophomore right-hander J.C. Keys are the most likely options to get the ball first.
If USM wins Monday, it will match up with the winner of the Baton Rouge Regional in the next round.
“I expect the same thing we've been doing this whole season,” Hadley said of Monday's contest. “Coach Berry talks all the time about the chemistry. We can't be content with what we've done so far. As long as we keep winning, I'm satisfied. I'm happy.”
What: Hattiesburg Regional title game
When: 1 p.m., Monday
Who: Southern Miss vs. Mississippi State/South Alabama winner
Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg