The Conference USA baseball race remains close, about as close as Sunday’s game when Cole Donaldson drove in the winning run with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning as Southern Miss trimmed Florida Atlantic 8-7.
FAU had won the first two games of the series at Pete Taylor Park, tying the Golden Eagles in the C-USA standings. But Sunday’s victory gave USM an 18-6 league record while second-place FAU dropped to 17-7.
Each team plays six more Conference USA games before the May 22-26 tournament at Biloxi.
“That was major,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said about the dramatic victory.
“Certainly with where we are trying to be with our RPI and trying to put ourselves in position for postseason play, it would not have been good to have got swept.
“For our club, mentally, that was also a huge game, showing them that at times it wasn’t easy. We created a lot of problems for ourselves but at the end of the day, 35 guys were there for one purpose, to win the game, and they found a way to do it in the bottom of the ninth.”
USM’s RPI ranking stood at No. 40 after Sunday’s game, according to WarrenNolan.com.
Some of the problems on Sunday included seven walks and three hit batters by the USM pitching staff, along with two errors.
But there were good parts, too, like starting pitcher Stevie Powers’ five-inning performance after lasting only an inning in his last start; home runs by Gabe Montenegro and Hunter Slater; and the fifth inning, when Southern Miss scored four runs to take a 6-2 lead.
With two out in the fifth, Montenegro walked and scored on a close play at the plate when Matt Guidry doubled off the right-center field wall. That gave the Eagles a 3-2 lead.
New FAU pitcher Vince Coletti walked Slater, then catcher Bryant Bowen singled in Guidry. After a wild pitch, Matt Wallner was intentionally walked and DH Erick Hoard singled up the middle to drive in two runs and make it 6-2.
But the Owls kept chipping away, scoring their next five runs on only two hits and tie the game 7-7 and putting their closer, Zach Schneider, on the mound. He mowed down the first five Golden Eagles he faced until Guidry ripped another double that just missed getting out of the park with two out in the ninth inning.
With first base open, FAU intentionally walked Slater to face Donaldson, who had entered the game at catcher as a defensive replacement. Bad move for FAU. The senior Golden Eagle, on a two-ball, no-strike count, stroked a hard ground ball that glanced off the FAU third baseman’s shoulder for a run-scoring and game-winning single.
“He threw me a fastball and I was able to handle it,” said Donaldson, who had a .252 batting average before the big hit, which later got him a sports drink shower from his teammates. “You’ve always got to be ready. I got a good barrel on it and I was kind of watching out of the corner of my eye. I saw it kind of kick off him.”
Hunter Stanley (5-1), who pitched the final two innings for Southern Miss, got the win.
Montenegro, Guidry and Hoard each had two hits for USM, which got its 20th home win for the fifth straight season.
The game was USM’s fourth last-inning walkoff victory of the season and Donaldson’s second. It gave the Eagles a 31-15 overall record going into next weekend’s Conference USA series at Rice. They host UAB in the final series of the season May 16-18.
“We need some guys to get healthy and we need to get some rest,” Berry said. “Our pitching staff is really stressed. Having no mid-week game this week will certainly help prepare us for next weekend.”
Florida Atlantic dropped to 32-15 and has UTSA and Middle Tennessee left on its C-USA schedule.
The C-USA baseball tournament is set for May 22-26 at MGM Park in Biloxi.