Two games and two wins into the Conference USA tournament and Southern Miss’ postseason hopes have seen a significant lift.
The Golden Eagles beat Marshall 10-5 on Thursday at MGM Park to earn a full day of rest on Friday. USM (36-19) will play the winner of Friday’s 3 p.m. game between Rice and Marshall at 9 a.m. on Saturday in the semifinals.
Whoever USM plays Saturday will have to beat the Golden Eagles twice to advance to the 1 p.m. championship game on Sunday. USM needs a single win to advance to Sunday.
No 1 seed FAU remains undefeated on the other side of the C-USA bracket and awaits the winner of Friday night’s WKU-UTSA game for a 12:30 p.m. semifinal contest on Saturday.
USM entered the tournament knowing that it at least needed a run to the championship game to help its case to earn an at-large NCAA bid and a tournament championship is the only thing that can guarantee the team’s fourth consecutive trip to the postseason.
“Our backs are against the wall,” USM right-hander Hunter Stanley said. “It’s no secret. Everybody knows that. We didn’t end up where we wanted to be, but our program has a tradition of winning this tournament. That’s what we’re going to set out to do.”
USM’s RPI ranking bumped up to No. 51 immediately after Thursday’s win — a five-spot improvement from where the Eagles stood entering the C-USA tournament.
No Golden Eagle had a bigger hand in Thursday’s outcome than Stanley, who helped his team avoid disaster when he took the mound with the bases loaded and none out in the bottom of the eighth.
The first two Marshall batters reached against Brant Blaylock to begin the inning and J.C. Keys walked the lone batter he faced to load the bases.
Stanley gave up a one-out single, two-RBI single to Shane Hanon to cut the USM lead to 7-5, but he delivered a pair of strikeouts and forced all-conference shortstop Elvis Peralta to pop out in foul territory to limit the damage to two runs.
“How big was that,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “That was huge. Even though he gave up a two-run hit that got them in it, he held the damage down and there was a lot of momentum that Marshall was trying to build. He inherited the damage and he controlled it.”
Stanley pitched the final two innings to pick up his third save of the season, allowing no runs on one hit. He struck out three and walked none.
“J.C. didn’t have his best stuff,” Stanley said. “We’ve been preaching all year that you come in and pick your brother up when he doesn’t have his best stuff. I’m just happy to do my job.”
Blaylock was awarded the win, giving up two runs on one hit in two innings out of the bullpen. He struck out three and walked two.
After the top four men in the USM lineup mostly struggled against Rice on Wednesday, the group combined to go 10-for-20 with two home runs and six RBIs against Marshall.
Sophomore leadoff man Gabe Montenegro and two-hole batter Matthew Guidry provided both of USM’s homers. Guidry’s came in the first inning for a two-run shot and Montenegro put the game to rest in the top of the ninth with a three-run bomb over the right field wall.
“I didn’t think he had it in him,” USM first baseman Hunter Slater said of Montenegro’s homer. “That ball was crushed. I said, ‘Wow,’ when he hit it. I knew it was gone off the bat. That helped keep that momentum.”
Junior right fielder Matt Wallner continued to swing a hot bat on Thursday after hitting a walk-off homer against Rice the day before. He finished 4-of-5 at the plate with four singles and a run scored.
“The last two or three weeks, he’s been lights out,” Slater said. “He’s fun to watch. He’s a special player who will continue to do special things in his career. I’m glad he’s on our team, I’ll tell you that.”
Marshall starter Wade Martin took the loss, giving up four runs on seven hits in 3 1/3 innings.
USM starting pitcher Stevie Powers battled through some tough luck, lasting 3 2/3 innings. He gave up three runs, none earned, on five hits while walking three and striking out two. He threw 63 pitches, giving him a chance to take the mound for an inning or two if the Eagles make it to Sunday.
The Eagles can sit back and watch as Rice and Marshall play on Friday.
“We’re going to practice (Friday), but one thing about it is it won’t be a hard practice,” Berry said. “We’ll get out and move around. A day of rest is really important to get our bodies hydrated. On the mound, we can get arms cooled down. It was hot out there today and it was hot yesterday. A day off will be much needed.”
Berry hasn’t yet committed to a starting pitcher for Saturday’s game, but freshman right-hander Gabe Shepard appears to be a strong candidate. He is 1-0 with a 3.06 ERA in nine appearances this season, including six starts.