Everyone in the ballpark was surprised when Matt Wallner didn’t jump on a 2-0 fastball with one down and one on in the bottom of the 10th, including the man at the plate.
“I’m not going to lie. I was mad about that one,” the Southern Miss slugger said. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to get another one.”
Much to his surprise, Rice reliever Kel Bordwine followed up with another fastball that was even higher in the strike zone.
This one, the Southern Miss junior slugger didn’t miss.
Wallner sent a 2-run home run over over the right field wall to finish off a dramatic rally, clinching a 6-4 win over Rice to stay in the winner’s bracket of the Conference USA tournament at MGM Park.
USM players mobbed Matthew Guidry, who walked to begin the inning, and Wallner, who tossed his helmet high as he crossed home plate.
“That was pretty awesome. That was a lot of fun,” Wallner said. “I wasn’t going to throw my helmet or anything, but I thought of (former USM standout) Taylor Braley two years ago and I thought I would do that for him. Yeah, that was for Braley.”
USM (35-19) will play Marshall at 4 p.m. on Thursday in a winner’s bracket game at MGM Park. The winner of that game will rest on Friday before taking part in the semifinals at 9 a.m. on Saturday. The loser will play at 3 p.m. on Friday in an elimination contest.
Wallner’s blast capped an improbable five-run rally after the Golden Eagles trailed 4-1 with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
“He’s just one unique dude,” USM coach Scott Berry said of Wallner. “He has very little emotion in what he does, which makes him special. He’s very humble. There’s not a lot of emotion out of him. That’s why he’s a good player.”
USM appeared dead in the water for much of the game as C-USA Pitcher of the Year Matt Canterino held the Golden Eagles to one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out nine and walked two.
An RBI double by Erick Hoard in the seventh finally put USM on the board, but the Eagles couldn’t manage anything else until they loaded the bases on singles by Bryant Bowen and Fred Franklin and a walk to Danny Lynch.
With the bases stacked and two out, the USM player who has perhaps struggled the most at the plate this season, senior backup infielder Storme Cooper, stepped to the plate. He had the team’s worst batting average at .139 entering the game.
After working a 2-1 count, Cooper slapped a perfectly-placed double down the right field line to bring home a pair of runs to cut the Rice lead to 4-3.
“I feel really good,” Cooper said. “I’m just trying to take it in right now. I’m a senior and I’m just trying to take every moment in right now.”
USM tied the game to force extra innings when pinch runner Jacob Edwards took home on a wild pitch with Gabe Montenegro standing at the plate.
When Cooper replaced Will McGillis late in the game, it was strictly a defensive move.
“This game of baseball is a game opportunity, not a game of failure,” Berry said. “Storme has been sitting over there and seeing a lot more than he’s been playing. For him to come up and deliver like he did, I can’t say enough for the senior right there.”
USM junior right-hander Cody Carroll (3-2) tossed three scoreless innings in relief to pick up the win. He struck out two and walked one. USM starter Walker Powell gave up four runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out 5 and walked two.
Bordwine took the loss after giving up the Wallner shot in the 10th.
Rice (24-32) will play Louisiana Tech at 9 a.m. on Thursday in an elimination contest.