The big guy went deep twice and the veteran bailed Southern Miss out of a major jam as the Golden Eagles completed a Conference USA series sweep of Charlotte by beating the 49ers 8-6 Sunday at Pete Taylor Park.
Both junior slugger Matt Wallner and senior pitcher J.C. Keys came through in the critical eighth inning, when the game was in doubt.
Keyes, in a relief role, got out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the top of the eighth and Wallner hit his second home run of the game and 10th of the season in the bottom of the eighth to keep momentum on the side of the Eagles, who improved to 24-13 overall and 14-4 in Conference USA.
“The eighth inning was obviously the most important inning of the game, both the top half and the bottom half,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said.
Charlotte (14-24-1, 5-12-1) jumped on USM starting pitcher Mason Strickland for two runs in the top of the first inning but USM bounced back with four in the bottom of the frame.
Two batters walked and one scored on Bryant Bowen’s single that extended his hitting streak to 21 games. Then Matt Wallner belted a 1-2 fastball over the right-field wall for a three-run home run to put USM ahead 4-2.
Southern Miss kept pouring it on in the second inning. Back-to-back home runs to right, a two-run blast by Matt Guidry and a solo shot by Hunter Slater, made it 7-2.
But after that, Charlotte reliever Joey Cooney went to the mound and during one stretch retired 13 straight Golden Eagles. The 49ers added one run in the fourth inning and two in the seventh and they were back in it, trailing only 7-5.
And it almost got worse. Charlotte got two runners on against USM pitcher Cody Carroll, bringing Keys to the mound, and he hit the first batter he faced to load the bases. But then one runner was out at the plate on a fielder’s choice, then Keys got a strikeout, then he enticed a groundout for the third out of the eighth inning.
“It was pretty fun,” Keys said. “I like those type of games. Getting the first out (was the key). That calms everything.”
But he admitted he hadn’t got out of a big jam that well in a long time.
“Not since I was about 8 years old,” he said, “when I would walk the bases loaded and then get out of it.”
His teammates mobbed Keys when he walked off the mound after the third out of the eighth inning and after his day was over.
But there was more drama. Much more. The first bit came when Wallner got hold of another fastball and drilled the right-field light pole halfway up. The homer gave Wallner 45 for his career, which tied him on the all-time USM list with Fred Cooley (1987-89). (Marc Maddox is first with 53, Jeff Cook, who threw out the “first pitch” on Saturday, is second with 47 and Brad Willcutt is third with 46.)
“You’ve got to have that guy that everybody feeds off of,” Berry said. “Wallner is the guy that can do that. He’s starting to heat up and that’s a good thing.”
It was 8-5, but the game still wasn’t over. Charlotte’s Carson Johnson singled and Todd Elwood doubled off reliever Ryan Ochs and after a sacrifice fly and a walk, Hunter Stanley came to the mound. He got a strikeout for the second out and a groundout to end the game and the Golden Eagles got a sweep.
Next on the schedule, Southern Miss will host Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday and play at UNO on Wednesday and at Middle Tennessee State in a Conference USA weekend series.