|Jack Duggan, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations
Hattiesburg, Miss. - Southern Miss catcher Chuckie Robinson arguably had the best view of one of the best moments in Pete Taylor Park baseball history Sunday afternoon.
And as Daniel Keating’s soft fly ball left his bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, Robinson already was leaping from the on-deck circle even before it fell safely onto the lawn in short center field.
“It was a low curveball, and he got his bat on it and kind of chipped it into the outfield,” Robinson said, “and I just went nuts.”
Robinson was hardly alone.
Keating’s one-out, pinch-hit single brought home designated hitter Hunter Slater from third base with the game-winning run, as No. 19 Southern Miss defeated No. 24 Rice 2-1 before 3,551.
“It’s awesome,” said Keating, who lost his jersey somewhere in the infield dogpile that appeared after his teammates swarmed him under between first and second base. “As I touched first base, I knew I was about to get mobbed, and I think I threw my (batting) helmet about a mile in the air.”
The walk-off victory gave the Golden Eagles (29-12, 14-4 Conference USA) their first series in Hattiesburg and only the second over the Owls (25-13, 13-5 11) in 11 regular-season weekend meetings. The only previous series triumph had come in Houston in 2008, when Southern Miss took two of three games at Reckling Park in Houston.
“Real proud of the way that we came out (Sunday) and got a much-needed win,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “Championship Sunday is what we called it, and I’m proud of our guys for winning the series.”
By winning a weekend series that saw all three games decided by one run, the Golden Eagles assumed sole possession of first place, a game in front of the Owls in the C-USA standings.
“Very clean series by both programs,” Berry said. “Both teams gutted it out.”
Southern Miss perhaps even moreso.
After winning 2-1 Friday night, the Golden Eagles saw Rice rally for 4-3 victory with single runs in the sixth and eighth innings Saturday.
Sunday, starting pitcher Kirk McCarty and the Southern Miss defense had made Robinson’s third home run of the season, a solo shot in the second inning, stand up despite threat after threat by Rice.
Until the eighth inning.
McCarty had scattered seven hits and was aided by eight strikeouts and a double play to strand seven Owls through seven innings. But he was lifted after allowing leadoff singles to designated hitter Dominic DiCaprio and shortstop Ford Proctor to start the eighth.
Freshman left-hander Stevie Powers, who had fared poorly Tuesday in a midweek loss at Tulane, got left fielder Tristan Gray to hit into a double play that sent pinch-runner Charlie Warren to third base.
Powers gave way to freshman right-hander Nick Sandlin, who induced a ground ball by second baseman Grayson Lewis that just skimmed past the glove of a diving Tim Lynch at first base and into right field to score Warren.
One pitch later, Robinson nailing Lewis trying to steal second, but Rice had tied the game 1-1.
“Sometimes it’s hard to not have any doubts, but it’s baseball,” said McCarty, who had thrown 14 consecutive scoreless innings before being charged with the eighth-inning run. “Things can go a lot of different ways.
“You know, we could have come out and scored 11 (runs) and they could have scored 12, but it’s been a pitchers’ series all weekend, and I feel like both teams pitched the ball really well and played great defense.”
Rice right-hander Ricardo Salinas allowed just four hits over 7 2/3 innings, none after the fourth inning. But he was lifted after issuing his third walk of the game to center fielder Jake Sandlin with two outs in the eighth. Reliever Austin Solecitto came in and got Lynch to fly out on his first pitch.
Sandlin worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth, giving the Golden Eagles their chance.
Slater coaxed a full-count walk to lead off the inning, and then moved to second when Solecitto (1-1) uncorked a wild pitch on his first pitch to third baseman Tracy Hadley.
Rice lifted Solecitto mid-batter, turning to closer Glenn Otto, who had picked up the win Saturday with 2 1/3 innings of perfect relief.
Hadley laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Slater to third base with one out, and Keating was tapped to bat for J.C. Keys, who had entered the game as defensive replacement in left field in the eighth inning.
Keating fouled off Otto’s first pitch, then took a fastball for a ball.
“I was looking for a curveball (because) he’s got a good twelve-six (break on the pitch),” Keating said. “I was looking for something up that wasn’t going to bounce in front of the plate. I saw it up and tried to get my (bat) barrel under it and hit something, a fly ball to the outfield.
“I got enough of it.”
Southern Miss returns to Pete Taylor Park at 6 p.m. Tuesday when it hosts nationally-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette. The Golden Eagles will begin a four-game road trip when they travel to UNO 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.