Wild play hands Southern Miss C-USA title, celebration ensues
HATTIESBURG - There have been a lot of wild finishes at Pete Taylor Park over the years, but it's unlikely any of those top what happened Sunday afternoon in the Conference USA Tournament title game.
The Southern Miss baseball team earned a dramatic 3-2 win over Rice Sunday at Pete Taylor Park to claim its first C-USA Tournament title since 2010 and end its four-year postseason drought.
However, USM did not receive the NCAA regional host site that it hoped to receive on Sunday. The full NCAA Tournament field will be announced at 11 a.m. on Monday on ESPNU.
Gulfport High School product Daniel Keating was named the tournament's MVP after providing USM's go-ahead RBI double to make it 2-1 in the fifth inning. He also led the team in RBIs for the tournament with six.
The decisive moment of the game came on the final play. With Rice trailing 3-1, down to its final out and two men on base, the Owls' Dayne Wunderlich singled off USM closer Nick Sandlin to left center to bring home Grayson Lewis from second base.
Tristan Gray attempted to go all the way home from first base on the play, but USM used an awkward relay that involved center fielder Jake Sandlin tossing the ball to shortstop Nick Dawson, who threw toward home, but first baseman Tim Lynch was in the direct path of the toss near the pitcher's mound and made the cutoff. Lynch then threw a dart home to catcher Chuckie Robinson, who blocked the plate and made the tag on Gray.
Home plate umpire Scott Wilkerson called Gray out, setting off a wild celebration at Pete Taylor Park, involving a dog pile at home plate and plenty of hugs going around.
"My heart kind of dropped. I'm not going to lie," Robinson said of the final play of the game. "The ball went into the gap. (Jake) Sandlin did a great job of cutting it off and hit Nick Dawson. I thought it was coming straight home, but the throw was kind of offline. Tim kind of came out of nowhere, grabbed it and threw to me and I banged the guy. It was an awesome play, a great way to end the game."
Lynch said he was surprised to see the ball headed his direction when he caught the ball close to his body.
"It all happened so fast," an elated Lynch said. "You practice stuff like that, the fundamentals and the double cuts, and for it to end like that, it's pretty crazy.
Senior right-hander Nick Johnson was the winner pitcher after throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief and Nick Sandlin earned his 12th save of the season.
Jon Duplantier was the losing pitcher for Rice, allowing two runs on 4 2/3 innings in relief.
Berry was emotional after the game and for good reason after his team ended the program's four-year postseason drought.
"I'm just happy for (the players)," Berry said. "They're the ones that put in all the work, in all honesty. They're the ones that work out. They're the ones that come out here on the field and practice. Coupled with the academic side, there are so many things going into a student-athlete. To put in all that work and have it pay off for you, it makes you look back now and say it was worth every bit of it."
The Golden Eagles improved to 40-18 for the program's ninth 40-win season in their history.
Sophomore Hayden Roberts was the surprise starting pitcher for USM on Sunday and he came through with a solid performance, giving up one run on four hits in 4 2/3 innings. He struck out two and walked two.
Roberts, who was coming off Tommy John Surgery entering this season, didn't know he was starting Sunday's title game until Saturday evening.
"(Berry) told me, 'You've got the ball, good luck,'" Roberts said. Wunderlich gave Rice a 1-0 lead in the second inning on an RBI single, but Roberts and the USM bullpen held the Owls scoreless for the next six innings.
USM tied the game at 1-1 in the fifth inning when Robinson scored from third on a wild pitch by Duplantier in the fifth inning.
On a day when USM stranded 11 runners, it was Keating who finally gave the Eagles a 2-1 lead with a hard hit double that hit near the top of the left field wall to score Lynch from second.
Jake Sandlin preserved the lead in the eighth inning when he had to run a long distance to make a sliding catch in right center to strand a pair of Rice runners, sending the crowd of 3,593 to its feet.
Freshman reserve second baseman Storme Cooper gave USM a key insurance run with two outs in the ninth when he singled to right to score Jake Sandlin from third base.
Berry received a Gatorade bath during his post-game radio interview.
"It's a fun day for all of us, said USM freshman left-hander Stevie Powers, who threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings. "I'm really glad we could get it done for the seniors. They deserve it. We've been working hard all season for a moment like this, but we're not done yet."