Southern Miss advances to C-USA title
HATTIESBURG - The best baseball teams feature players who know their roles and fill them well.
That's how Southern Miss has gotten to this point and that's why they'll be playing at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Conference USA title game at Pete Taylor Park.
USM topped Marshall 3-2 Saturday to stay perfect in tournament play, earning a spot in the C-USA title game for the first time since 2013.
One Golden Eagle who has settled into his spot well is sophomore designated hitter Daniel Keating, a sophomore from Gulfport. He finished 1-for-3 with a run scored Saturday, reaching base a total of three times, including a walk and a hit-by-pitch.
When Keating came up with a two-out double in the top of the fifth, it marked the fifth consecutive at-bat that he had managed to reach base.
"I'm just trying to see pitches I can hit and hit it hard," Keating said.
Keating's batting average now stands at .296 thanks to a hot run of late. In three C-USA tournament games, he is 5-for-10 with a home run, five RBIs and four runs scored.
In the last three weeks, Keating has improved his batting average by 41 points.
He credits his recent improvement at the plate to a better approach in the final weeks of the season.
"The last month, I really started seeing the ball," Keating said. "I slowed myself down and found my timing. That allowed me to see more pitches and get better pitches to hit."
Keating has found a home in the middle of the USM lineup, seeing time at both cleanup hitter and in the five-hole in the conference tournament.
Keating is far from the lone Golden Eagle to discover his role in the lineup in recent weeks and put the team in position to end its four-year postseason drought.
Senior Chase Scott mostly played left field early in the season, but he has settled in well at second base late in the season. He's playing good defense and swinging the bat as well as he has all season.
It was his three-run double in the first inning Saturday that gave USM all the runs it needed to advance to the title round.
Scott, the man they call "Squirrel," played through a fracture in his right cheek that kept him out of Thursday's 9-3 win over Marshall. The fracture was the result of a high and inside fastball on Wednesday against Old Dominion.
"I don't have much feeling in the left side of my teeth," Scott admitted Saturday. "At least the swelling has gone down."
On the pitching staff, you see freshmen like Walker Powell, Stevie Powers and Nick Sandlin becoming key members of the staff.
Powell is USM's second best starting pitcher at the moment. Powers is a versatile lefty that is effective as a starter and a middle reliever. Sandlin has become one of Conference USA's top closers in his first season and earned his 11th save Saturday.
While Keating, Scott and a talented freshmen class have made an impact on this year's team, it's the senior leadership of men like shortstop Nick Dawson, center fielder Jake Sandlin, right fielder Dylan Burdeaux and Tim Lynch that have made all the difference for this year's team.
"I think (the freshmen) have learned from the older guys," USM coach Scott Berry said. "I think our upperclassmen brought them along. They've been big brothers and tried to get them used to his level. They instill confidence in them in how they talk to them."