AUBURN, Ala. — Samford’s 4-2 10-inning victory over Southern Miss here Friday in the Auburn Regional leaves Golden Eagles coach Scott Berry’s last season on the brink of a sudden end.
The Eagles know it. What’s more, they know why that is the case.
They had their chances to win — indeed, so many chances. But they left a whopping 14 runners on base, most in scoring position. They were zero-for-four with the bases loaded.
While gutsy Tanner Hall, the only two-time All American in Southern Miss history, pitched his usual gem, Southern Miss hitters didn’t get it done when they needed it most.
“Credit Samford,” Berry said. “They really pitched it well. We didn’t do enough at the plate to win the game. That’s really all there is to it.”
It was a grim reminder of some problems the Eagles had earlier in the season, not getting clutch hits when it mattered most. That was a prime reason why Southern Miss was a stagnant 22-15 at one point in April and it looked as if the Eagles were going nowhere in the postseason. They began to get the clutch hits in late April and had won 19 of 21 and the Sun Belt Tournament championship coming here.
Two Samford pitchers had much to do with it the Eagles’ hitting woes. Starter Jacob Cravey, the Bulldogs’ ace, pitched the first six innings, allowing only five hits and one run. Ben Petschke, the Samford closer, then came on and gave up only one run over four innings.
Southern Miss managed only the two runs despite nine walks. That’s right. Samford pitching walked nine batters and gave up only two runs. You won’t see that often. It happened because Cravey and Petschke made superb pitches when they needed them most. And it happened because Southern Miss hitters didn’t deliver when they needed it most.
They came close. With the winning run on second base and one out in the bottom of the ninth, USM leadoff hitter Matt Etzel smacked a hard line drive right into the mitt of Samford first baseman. In the sixth inning, Carson Paetow might have left a dent in the right field fence with a line drive shot. Had Paetow lifted it just a tad more it would have been far out of the park. As it was, it went for an easy double, but Paetow ended up just another runner left in scoring position, much to the chagrin of the largely Southern Miss crowd of 3,578.
The offensive inefficiency ruined a sterling performance by Hall, who earlier in the week was named first-team All American for the second consecutive season. In what might have been his final appearance as a Golden Eagle, Hall struck out nine, walked two and scattered eight hits over nine innings. And he would be the first to tell you he was aided by some sensational fielding plays, especially from third baseman Danny Lynch, who made several stops and throws that would have made Brooks Robinson proud. (Younger readers, look him up.)
Early on, Hall did not have his best stuff and and often pitched behind in the count. He gave up a third inning run when Garrett Staton, the Bulldogs’ leadoff hitter, doubled home a run for a 1-0 Samford lead. But Hall kept battling and seemed to get into a rhythm in the middle innings. Here’s grit: Hall’s 120th pitch of the game induced a double play ball, the third the Eagles had turned.
The following will tell you how much respect Hall earned from Samford. Coach Tony David described the thought process in the Bulldogs dugout entering the 10th inning. “Everybody was looking to see who they would send out to the mound. When we saw it wasn’t Hall, someone shouted, ‘Who is it?’”
David said he shouted back, “Does it matter? It’s not Hall.”
It was Justin Storm, USM’s closer who has been so effective down the stretch this season, a critical part of the Eagles’ late season success. First up for the Bulldogs was catcher Josh Rodriguez, a big, strong guy who had put on a long-ball show during Samford’s batting practice. With the count one-one, Storm threw a 92 mile per hour fastball, belt high and over the middle of the plate. Rodriguez launched it high and far, well beyond the tall, green batter’s background in centerfield, at least 50 feet beyond the 392-foot sign.
“Majestic,” David, the Samford coach, called it.
The Bulldogs, who have won 14 of their last 17, didn’t stop there. They added two more runs, one charged to Storm and the other to Niko Mazza, the third Golden Eagle pitcher.
It was the same old, same old for the Eagles in the bottom half of the 10th. With the mostly gold-clad throng cheering desperately, the Eagles loaded the bases with nobody out. Then Paetow grounded to first, scoring a run to cut the margin to 4-2 with runners on second and third and just one out. But Blake Johnson struck out and Etzel’s lazy fly ball to left field ended it.
“We gotta flush it,” Berry said. “We gotta have a sense of urgency … There’s no sense of urgency greater than knowing if you don’t win, you go home.”
The 41-18 Eagles planned to watch host Auburn play 4-seed Penn later Friday night. USM will play the loser of that one in the losers’ bracket game at 2 p.m. Saturday. Samford will play the winner at 8 p.m.
Bottom line: Southern Miss will have win four straight games over the next three days to advance to a Super Regional and keep alive hopes for an Omaha ending to Berry’s career.