After battling their way into the NCAA tournament field with a C-USA tournament title, the Southern Miss baseball team began the Baton Rouge Regional on Friday with all the swagger of a contender.
USM (39-19) rolled 15-3 over Arizona State, a program with five national titles, to set up a 6 p.m. game on Saturday with the winner of Friday night’s Stony Brook-LSU contest at Alex Box Stadium.
When Arizona State pushed across a run on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth, it felt as if ASU had struck the first crucial blow in a tight pitchers’ battle.
And then all hell broke loose for the Sun Devils (37-18).
Sparked by an improbable solo home run by senior shortstop Storme Cooper to start the fifth, Southern Miss (39-19) rolled off 12 runs on nine hits in the inning to leave little doubt of the outcome Friday afternoon.
Cooper’s home run just over the left field wall was his first since April of 2017 — a span of 96 at-bats in which he has mostly struggled badly at the plate.
When he managed to clear the fence, that opened the flood gates for the Golden Eagles.
“I felt like we were playing with a lot of emotion and that got the guys fired up,” Cooper said.
Even Cooper had a hard time remembering the last time he hit a homer when asked about it after the game.
“(Hitting coach Chad) Caillet just told me to run his pitch count up,” Cooper said. “We bat lower in the order so that’s our job, just to scrap and do whatever we can. He left one up and I got a good barrel on it.”
The final blow of the fifth inning was a 3-run blast by Matt Wallner high off the NATIONAL CHAMPIONS billboard that hangs above the bleachers in right field. It was Wallner’s first career home run in the NCAA tournament and it was likely one of the longest of his 57 career homers.
“I just tried to stay relaxed and have a good approach at the plate,” Wallner said. “When Storme hit one out, I figured I’d try to go over the intimidator (billboard), but I hit it. I tried my best, but I don’t think I can do it. “
The fifth inning lasted 45 minutes and included 15 Golden Eagle batters. Ten of USM’s runs came with two outs.
USM freshman right-hander Gabe Shepard came out firing with a fastball that reached 97 miles an hours in the first inning and rolled through a strong 5 2/3 innings. Shepard held ASU, which entered the game as the nation’s leader in home runs with 92, to a pair of runs on six hits while striking out four and walking three.
“I’d say it gave me a ton of confidence just knowing that they believed in me and trusted me to get the job done,” Shepard said. “I feel like my teammates had confidence in me and that just makes me feel good knowing they have my back.”
J.C. Keys entered to begin the seventh inning and seemed to work past his recent control issues, lasting two scoreless innings. He struck out four, walked one and allowed no hits.
Alec Marsh took the loss for Arizona State, giving up five runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings. He struck out seven and walked three.
USM head coach Scott Berry declined to announce a starting pitcher for Saturday’s game, but it seems likely that redshirt junior right-hander Walker Powell will get the call. He is 6-2 with a 2.78 ERA.