Stevens’ homer KOs Ole Miss in 10th|[03/26/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2008

PEARL — Corey Stevens walked off the Trustmark Park turf with a smile that stretched from Pearl to his hometown of Clinton.

The former Clinton High and Hinds Community College standout drove a Justin Cryer fastball over the center field fence to deliver Southern Miss (15-7) a dramatic 3-2 victory over in-state rival Ole Miss in front of 4,786 at the home of the Mississippi Braves.

“He came in throwing hard and I wanted to make sure I got a strike,” said Stevens, mobbed by family and friends following the blast. “I just wanted to get my foot down early enough and put a good swing on it. This is definitely number one in my baseball career.”

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Stevens played two seasons at Hinds Community College for former Warren Central skipper Sam Temple before signing with Southern Miss this season. He has started 10 of 13 games and had only hit one home run coming into Tuesday’s game.

“When I hit it, I knew it was going to be close. It didn’t get over that fence by much,” Stevens said.

Stevens got his opportunity after a night of lost chances for Southern Miss. Ole Miss kept the Golden Eagles, winners of 9 of their last 10 games, scoreless until the ninth inning.

All-American closer Scott Bittle, who got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning, walked Chris Matesich and Bo Davis to lead off the ninth. James Ewing then attempted a sacrifice bunt, but Matesich beat the throw to third to load the bases with no outs.

Trey Sutton grounded out to first to score one run. Brian Dozier attempted to bunt to score the tying run, but Ole Miss (15-9) first baseman Matt Smith dove headfirst to snag the sinking bunt. With two outs, Bittle uncorked a wild pitch to score Davis from third with the tying run. Bittle struck out cleanup hitter Kyle Maxie to get out of the inning with the game tied at 2.

“I think the difference was the eighth inning,” said Southern Miss coach Corky Palmer, who recorded his 800th college coaching victory and moved within nine of reaching 400 as Southern Miss coach. “We had some good at-bats and were able to get Bittle’s pitch count up, then get to him in the ninth. He is one of the best closers in the country and his numbers coming in were off the charts.”

In the 10th, Southern Miss reliever Wade Weathers recorded two outs but also allowed a pair of Rebels to reach base. Southern Miss closer Tyler Conn, who pitched deep into the Central Florida series and will be counted on to pitch against Rice in a crucial Conference USA series, struck out Matt Smith to end the threat.

Ole Miss replaced Bittle with Cryer in the bottom of the inning and struck out Keith Winstead before Stevens’ bomb ended it.

“It was a close battle all night. Pitchers were doing great for both teams,” said Ole Miss right fielder Jordan Henry, a former Vicksburg High standout and reigning SEC Freshman of the Year. “They just got the key hit when it counted.”

Ole Miss scraped single runs in the second and sixth against Southern Miss starter Josh Billeaud. He pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowed two runs on six hits and struck out four.

“Our pitching was fantastic tonight,” Stevens said. “That was the key for us to keep us in the game.”

Josh Billeaud was matched by Ole Miss starter Phillip Irwin, who pitched six strong innings — his longest outing of the season. He scattered seven hits and struck out eight. He also worked out of jams throughout the night, three times having Southern Miss runners in scoring position with less than one out only to keep the Eagles scoreless.

“Our pitchers kept us there all night long,” Palmer said. “When you are only two runs down, it’s not like you are out of it. We were outhitting them most of the game and were fortunate to come up with the big hit. This was a battle of two good teams.”

Cody Overbeck led Ole Miss with a single and a double to extend his hitting streak to 23 games, four shy of tying Brian Pettway’s school record he set in 2005. Logan Power also had two hits for Ole Miss. James Ewing and Winstead each had three hits to pace Southern Miss and Stevens had two hits — none bigger than the last one.

“The highlight of my life,” Stevens said.