May 22, 2009

Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Wednesday night, Southern Miss came out red hot and made quick work of archrival Tulane in the opening round of the 2009 Conference USA Baseball Tournament.

Thursday night against regular-season champion East Carolina, the Golden Eagles saved their best for last.

Shut out through the first six innings, freshman shortstop B.A. Vollmuth's two-out, two-run home run tied the score in the bottom the seventh inning and Southern Miss tacked on three more runs in the eighth on designated hitter Corey Steven's sacrifice fly and first baseman Joey Archer's two-run single to dramatically snatch a 5-2 victory over the top-seeded Pirates.

USM senior right-hander JR Ballinger turned in a career effort, holding the hard-swinging Pirates to two runs -- one earned -- on seven hits in eight innings, and after Colin Cargill picked up his ninth save, it left the host Golden Eagles as the lone unbeaten on their side of the tournament bracket.

It was the first time the Golden Eagles (34-22) had ever knocked off the No. 1 seed in a C-USA tournament, and the win left a vast part of the 2,431 dancing in the aisles at Pete Taylor Park.

"JR pitched tremendous and Vollmuth had the big home run," USM coach Corky Palmer said. "The atmosphere here at the `Pete,' it's bringing back the old days. We're rising to the occasion with our enthusiasm.

"We beat a fine club, but we have to keep playing. Hopefully, we can get a win (Friday)."

After C-USA officials revised the tournament schedule because of weather concerns this weekend, ECU (42-16) is expected to play at 12:30 p.m. Friday in an elimination game against fourth-seeded Tulane (33-24). Southern Miss beat the Green Wave 15-2 in Wednesday's opening round.

The winner of that game is scheduled to meet the Golden Eagles at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Should the black and gold win Friday, it would put the Golden Eagles in Sunday's 1 p.m. championship game, and if Southern Miss is to extend its streak of six consecutive NCAA regional appearances, it has to win the league's automatic bid into the NCAAs by winning the tournament crown.

Some have suggested that the Golden Eagles are on a mission to send out Palmer on a high note. The veteran coach announced on April 30 that he was retiring at the end of the season after 12 years.

Palmer said any quest should not be about him.

"I told them a long time ago, this is not about me," Palmer said. "This about (seniors) Bo Davis, James and Mike Ewing, Brian Dozier. It's about them. It's not about me. They want to keep doing it, and we've got a lot of work left to do. Let's see if we can get it done."

Southern Miss got it done Thursday against a pitcher who had won his last seven starts and came into the game undefeated, including a regular-season win over the Golden Eagles.

ECU right-hander Seth Maness (9-1) had kept the Golden Eagles in check through the first six innings, allowing only one baseruner to reach scoring position in that stretch. At one point spanning the third through the seventh innings, Maness had retired 12 of 13 batters.

But Ballinger (5-3), who had been a reliever most of his career before earning a starting role this season, was nearly as tough on an ECU club that owned the league's best offensive numbers.

"Ballinger kept us in the game," Palmer said. "In college baseball, nine innings is a long time to cover. He gave us a chance, and as long as he kept us in there, it gave us a chance.

"I told him when I took him out, `Hey buddy, maybe we can let you pitch again next week.'"

ECU took a 2-0 lead, with first baseman Brandon Henderson driving in both runs. Henderson's grounder scored center fielder Trent Whitehead from third in the first inning, and his double in the third inning brought in second baseman Ryan Wood.

But with two outs in the seventh inning, Maness walked right fielder Michael Ewing and Vollmuth, who came into the evening hitting .226, drove his third home run of the season over the right-field fence to tie the score.

"It was a fastball that he left a little bit up," said Vollmuth, who has moved into the starting lineup after Dozier went down for the season after breaking his collarbone on April 14.

In the eighth, James Ewing ripped a one-out double to the wall in center and moved to third on Davis' infield single. An intentional walk to left fielder Kameron Brunty loaded the bases, and Seth Simmons replaced Maness to pitch to Stevens.

"It's exciting," said Stevens, who ripped a full-count, one-out fly to the right-field corner to score Ewing with the go-ahead run. "I wasn't nervous. I put the nervousness on the pitcher He got kind of rattled, couldn't find the zone, and I knew he was going to have to come in there.

"If it was close, I was going to put the barrel on it, and try and get it in the outfield."

Archer followed with a flare to right that added the final two runs.

"You have to tip your hat to Southern Miss," ECU coach Billy Godwin said. "It was two well-pitched games. We just came up short."