Golden Eagles down Charlotte twice to earn berth in C-USA championship game
The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles entered Saturday needing to win two game against Charlotte in order to advance to the C-USA title game Sunday.
Two nail-bitters later, their goal was accomplished with a 6-5 victory in game one and 10-8 win in game two.
For the better part of seven innings in game one, Charlotte seemed to have its baseball game with Southern Miss well in hand in the semifinals of The First, A National Banking Association, Conference USA Championship.
Hunter Slater, Tracy Hadley and Taylor Braley and the rest of the Golden Eagles had other ideas.
Southern Miss erased a 5-1 deficit over the last two innings, with Braley’s two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning giving the top-seeded Golden Eagles a 6-5 victory over the fourth-seeded 49ers at MGM Park Saturday afternoon.
“They’re a bunch of guys you just never doubt,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “We’ve seen it time and time again, and saw it again (Saturday).
Charlotte (34-23) was just three outs away from reaching its first C-USA title game since 1998 before the Golden Eagles pulled off their seventh walk-off win of the season.
“It’s two teams playing at a real high level and they were just a little bit better than we were,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said.
Charlotte led from the first pitch on, when leadoff man Zach Jarrett took the first offering from Southern Miss left-hander over the left-field wall for a 1-0 lead.
The 49ers nicked Powers for two more runs in the second, the first on Harris Yett’s single and the other on a fielding/throwing error by Hadley.
Roberts entered in the third inning, and allowed 2 runs on three hits over the next 5 2/3 innings, including a run in the fifth on Brett Zetzer’s sacrifice fly to put the 49ers ahead 4-0.
The Golden Eagles got one back in fifth when Mason Irby scored on Matt Wallner’s run-scoring double, but Charlotte got that run back in the top of the eighth inning on Reece Hampton’s bloop double into shallow center field off reliever Nick Sandlin.
The 49ers were up 5-1 and six outs away from Sunday.
“It wasn’t pretty for seven innings, other than Hayden Roberts going out there and keeping Charlotte down and giving this offense a chance because we feel like if there’re still outs on the board, we can score runs, and that’s what they did,” Berry said.
Braley walked and Wallner was hit by a pitch to lead off the eighth inning, bringing in reliever Josh Maciejewski from the bullpen.
Slater greeted him with a two-run triple ripped just inside the first-base bag and into the right-field corner, scoring Braley and Wallner and getting the Golden Eagles to 5-3. Hadley then lined a single into left field to pull Southern Miss within 5-4.
Bryant Bowen followed with an infield single, and USM had runners on first and second with no outs.
But Matthew Guidry popped out on a bunt attempt and the inning ended on two, long fly balls.
Sandlin (9-1) held down the top of the ninth, setting up the dramatics in the bottom of the inning when Braley connected off Maciejewski (5-5) for his 16th home run of the season following a leadoff single by Irby.
The ball disappeared into the trees just beyond the left-field netting, and a few moments later, Braley disappeared into the mob awaiting him at home plate.
“Honestly, I had a feeling he was going to leave the yard,” Berry said. “He’s just that kind of player.”
Saturday evening’s game two would prove to be only slightly less dramatic as the teams traded blows for the early innings and entered the eighth tied 6-6.
Irby and Braley walked to start the inning forcing a pitching change for Charlotte. Wallner provided the new pitcher with a rude welcome to the game with a single to left that loaded the bases.
After the fourth batter of the inning struck out for the first out, Bowen laced a two RBI double to left field to give the Golden Eagles the lead.
Wallner scored an important insurance run on a Charlotte wild pitch and Cole Donaldson scored USM’s fourth run of the inning on a LeeMarcus Boyd double to left center after pitch running for Bowen.
The 49ers refused to go quietly into the night and scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs.
Nick Sandlin (10-1) bounced back to end the game with his third strikeout of the game.
With the win, the Golden Eagles earned a berth in Sunday’s C-USA Championship game against Rice. First pitch is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. Rice advanced to the final with a 13-2 victory over Florida Atlantic Saturday.