HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Southern Miss coach Scott Berry had seen LSU come back in the eighth inning the night before against Kennesaw State, and as he watched the Tigers celebrate from the home dugout in the ninth inning against his own team Saturday night, he had one prayer.
“You just hope, ‘Man, just hit it to somebody,’ ” Berry said.
The Tigers had won a pregame coin flip, which allowed them to plant their stakes as the home team despite being at the Golden Eagles’ Pete Taylor Park.
And now, in the ninth inning, they were running away with the game, which Southern Miss had a grasp on until the bitter end. The Golden Eagles coach said he trusted his pitchers from him, that they had brought them to this dance. But LSU’s four-run rally ruined the black-tie affair, tying the score in the ninth before racing home with a 7-6 victory in the 10th.
Jordan Thompson’s hard ground ball into center field had capped the ninth-inning rally and tied the score, sending the game to extra innings.
In the 10th, Josh Pearson’s bases-loaded chopper bounced high enough for Josh Stevenson to slide home for the victory, touching off a celebration that had players pouring out of the LSU dugout.
“It’s about competing,” Thompson said. “I look down to the dugout and I see everyone cheering, and I was just trying to come through for my team.”
The unbeaten Tigers are in the championship round. At 6 pm Sunday, they will face the winner between Southern Miss and Kennesaw State, who play an elimination game at 1 pm
The winner of that game must defeat LSU twice — first on Sunday night and then again Monday in an if-necessary game. The champion will advance to the super regionals, where they’ll face the winner of the Coral Gables field.
In the beginning of Saturday night’s game, USM right-hander Hurston Waldrep was unfazed by the Tigers’ lineup, and the Golden Eagles slowly built a 6-2 lead.
Waldrep struck out 11 batters, including six straight across the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. That was a single-game school record for Southern Miss in the NCAA tournament. It also marked the 44th time Southern Miss had 10 or more strikeouts in a game.
“You can’t really focus on the outing when you didn’t get the win,” Waldrep said. “As a team, we’re fighting for the win, we gave it everything we had.”
Waldrep went 6⅔ innings, throwing 119 pitches. He threw 33 in the first inning, including a nine-pitch battle with Pearson on a flyout. He’d thrown 54 after two innings before setting into the game.
“We did enough early to push the pitch count up. They had the bullpen up in the second,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “But great pitchers can find a strategy. He settled in and was mowing us for a while.”
In the battle between one of the nation’s best pitching staffs versus one of the nation’s most productive offenses, the Eagles proved that not only that their pitching was strong, they were just as capable of barreling homers.
Both teams had three home runs by the 10th inning, but two of LSU’s came in the ninth to tie the game.
The Tigers were able to get two runs early in the first and second — they had even loaded the bases in the first — but after the second, LSU went cold. It was hitless until the seventh, when Dylan Crews knocked a double to left-center. Nothing came of it, however, and the Southern Miss crowd erupted in cheers when Jacob Berry struck out to end the inning.
Will McGillis cranked a two-run shot to left field in the second inning, and after he crossed the plate, he squatted low, holding his hands out in front of him as if taking a picture of his teammates who pooled from outside the dugout.
The audience facing him roared with applause.
It gave USM a 2-1 lead in the top of the second inning (the Eagles were the “away” team because they lost the regional coin flip).
But at the bottom of the second, Tyler McManus tied the score with his own solo homer to the right-center fence, where Gabe Montenegro leapt and watched it bounce from his glove and into the forest. That tied it at 2.
Danny Lynch’s RBI single in the fourth and Carson Paetow’s solo shot in the fifth gave the Golden Eagles a 4-2 advantage.
LSU’s Ty Floyd had started the game, and while he struck out seven and walked none in his six innings, all four of his earned runs came with two outs. I have allowed six hits.
“Him getting to the sixth inning was a big deal — just shrunk it just enough to do what we needed to do,” Johnson said. “It’s a tricky spot to be in a tournament like this where if you lose this game, you’ve got to win three in a row. You have to be really smart knowing that these guys can come back and give them every chance to win the game.”
Southern Miss started to add on in the seventh when Jacob Hasty relieved Floyd. Hasty had walked two, advancing both on wild pitches. Rodrigo Montenegro lined a hard ground ball to Cade Doughty, who tipped it. Thompson scooped it up, firing Morgan for the forceout—but McGillis, who had walked, scored for a 5-2 lead.
Hasty closed his outing with a strikeout, and Trent Vietmeier took the mound in the eighth. After striking out two, Christopher Sargent blistered a ball to left field to extend the lead, 6-2.
The Tigers finally had a chance in the eighth inning for a comeback like the night before. Facing left-hander Dalton Rogers, who relieved Waldrep, the Tigers loaded bases after Pearson singled to center, and both Thompson and Gavin Dugas, who pinch-hit for Jobert, walked. Landon Harper relieved Rogers, coaxing a ground ball by McManus that forced Dugas out at second.
Instead, LSU made its comeback a little more exciting by waiting until the ninth. Crews started it off with a solo shot to left-center.
With two outs, Pearson drew a walk, which set up Doughty’s two-run homer to make the score 6-5. Morgan was hit by a pitch to reach first, and Drew Bianco, his pinch runner, stole second.
That set up Thompson’s game-tying RBI single.
It was the second time this season Thompson had stepped into the batter’s box with the game’s outcome resting on the barrel of his bat. He’d knocked a walk-off home run against Oklahoma in the Shriners Classic in early March.
“There’s a lot of guys that I’d love to have up in those spots, but this is the most mentally tough player on our team and our program, hands down,” Johnson said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism