Southern Miss

Southern Miss nips Rice, sits alone atop C-USA Baseball standings

 Daniel Keating gets his shirt ripped off as Southern Miss celebrates its 2-1 victory over Rice on Sunday.
CAMAL PETRO/PINE BELT SPORTS Daniel Keating gets his shirt ripped off as Southern Miss celebrates its 2-1 victory over Rice on Sunday.

HATTIESBURG -- Southern Miss pinch hitter Daniel Keating lost his shirt Sunday.

That's because the Gulfport native's teammates mobbed him and ripped the buttons off his No. 3 jersey after his game-winning walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted the Golden Eagles to a 2-1 victory over Rice in Conference USA baseball action.

The single scored Hunter Slater from third base as USM (29-12, 14-4) sit atop the C-USA standings. Rice is (25-13, 3-5).

"I tried to get a fly ball to the outfield and I got enough of it," Keating said. "I knew it was going to fall. It was awesome. As soon as I touched first base, I knew I was going to get mobbed. I tried to get away from the dogpile but they finally took me down.

"It's freaking awesome. It's big for us. Magic at The Pete, that's all you can say."

Keating's winning hit wrapped up a big weekend series that saw USM take two of three games.

Southern Miss did not commit an error all weekend and Rice did not commit one until the fifth inning Sunday.

"It was a great series, very clean series for both programs," Golden Eagle coach Scott Berry said. "That's what (Rice coach Wayne) Graham and I talked about briefly at the end of the game. Both teams gutted it out, both teams were at the top of the conference, we're now up there one game ahead.

"It was championship Sunday is what we called it."

There is a long way to go before the end of the season and the Conference USA baseball tournament at Pete Taylor Park on May 25-29. Fifteen regular-season games remain, including the next one on Tuesday when Louisiana-Lafayette comes to Hattiesburg.

Starting pitchers Kirk McCarty of Southern Miss and Ricardo Salinas of Rice locked up in a duel for much of the game, with the only run through seven innings coming on Chuckie Robinson's solo home run in the second inning.

McCarty lasted 7 innings and struck out eight, walked two and scattered nine hits. Salinas went 7 2/3 innings, giving up four hits and three walks and striking out four.

They turned it over to relievers after that and USM's Hunter Slater drew a leadoff walk off Austin Solecitto. Tracy Hadley of Pascagoula came up to sacrifice bunt and the Rice pitcher threw a wild pitch, putting Slater on second. Hadley then bunted, off bullpen ace Glen Otto, who had entered the game. He was out, but Slater moved to third.

Berry told Keating to hit for J.C. Keys, who had been in the game for his defensive abilities in left field.

"I had a couple options," Berry said. "I didn't know if they were going to walk Keating to set up the double play. They opted not to. He's been taking some really good swings in (batting practice) and I just felt confident with him in there. At least a fly ball, that's what we were looking for more than anything. And he was able to deliver the base hit."

Keating figured he would see a Solecitto curve ball, and he did.

Off the bat, there was no doubt that the hit over the Rice second baseman would drop. It was the first USM hit since the fourth inning. And there was no doubt that Southern Miss had won the game and the series, the first time the Eagles have won a series over Rice since 2008 and only the second time ever.

"That's one of the biggest situations I've ever been in," Keating said. "I've just got to take some deep breaths and relax."

Keating hit a walk-off homer earlier this season in a run-rule victory. This walk-off was way more important.

"The first one definitely wasn't as cool," he said. "This is way more cool."

Nick Sandlin (3-2), who pitched the final 1 1/3 innings, was the winning pitcher.