OXFORD — Seemingly routine fly balls to right field have been a knife to the heart of Southern Miss baseball the last two weekends and threaten to end a promising season on a dismal note.
Six days after a bungled fly ball to shallow right in the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament cost the Golden Eagles a loss to Louisiana Tech — and a chance to host an NCAA Regional — a dropped fly ball to right field flipped the momentum in a 5-2 defeat to Florida State on the first day of the Oxford Regional.
Southern Miss starter Hunter Stanley had pitched masterfully through five innings and held a 2-0 lead when right fielder Reece Ewing apparently lost a fly ball in the sun that resulted in a two-base error. Stanley appeared visibly shaken, and two of the next four FSU batters homered. The Seminoles took a 3-2 lead and never looked back.
Thus, Southern Miss, 37-20, drops into the losers’ bracket, where they will face the loser of Friday night’s Ole Miss-Southeast Missouri game in an 11 a.m. elimination game Saturday. Florida State advances to a 5 p.m. winners’ bracket game against Friday night’s winner.
“It was a game of momentum and it swung there in the sixth inning,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said.
The fly ball to right?
“He said he lost it in the sun at the last second,” Berry said, after acknowledging that routine fly balls to right have been killers in the post-season. “I wish I had an answer for it, but I don’t. Hopefully, tomorrow, if they hit it out there, we’ll catch it.”
Stanley, possibly pitching for the last time as a Golden Eagle, deserved better. He allowed only three baserunners and two hits, while striking out six through the first five innings. Then FSU leadoff hitter Tyler Martin reached base on the two-base error and Logan Lacey followed with a two-run, line drive home run over the left field bullpen. Elijah Cabell lifted another home run later in the inning and then Matheu Nelson, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, slugged a two-run homer in the eighth inning off Eagle reliever Ben Ethridge.
That brings up another dismal point where Southern Miss is concerned. Ethridge, normally the Eagles’ No. 3 starter, threw 40 pitches and presumably will not be available to start if the Eagles advance past Saturday.
Said Berry, about using Ethridge in relief, “We were trying to hold it at 3-2 and Ben has really been throwing it well. We were trying to keep it at 3-2 and then win it in the late innings.”
Conversely, Florida State handled adversity exceedingly well. Southern Miss scored two first inning runs when Florida State infielders committed two errors. Left-hander Parker Messick, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, seemed unfazed. He blanked the Eagles over the next five innings and left the game with a 3-2 lead.
Messick mixed his pitches well and was at his best when he needed it most. Case in point: Gabe Montenagro and Reed Trimble both singled to lead off the third inning. Southern Miss had a excellent chance to extend the 2-0 lead with the heart of its order coming up. Messick struck out the next three batters, USM’s 3-4-5 hitters, all on called third strikes.
For the game, Southern Miss was 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. That is no recipe for success.
Said Charlie Fisher, the Golden Eagles designated hitter, “Messick did a really good job of mixing his pitches. We gotta stop pressing, trying to do too much at the plate. We’ve got to flush this one and be ready to play tomorrow.”
They’ve also got make routine plays and do an infinitely better job of clutch hitting.