Matt Wallner made his presence known to Ole Miss in Southern Miss’ 5-3 win over the Rebels in front of a crowd of 5,202, the fifth largest crowd in Pete Taylor Park history.
Simply put, Matt Wallner gaveth and Matt Wallner taketh away.
Wallner’s night started his night in right field, where he robbed a home run from Ole Miss designated hitter Cole Zabowski in the second inning. Wallner’s bat then followed in the bottom of the second inning as he hit a no-doubt solo home run over the left field wall to give Southern Miss an early 1-0 lead.
“I’m not scared of anybody,” Wallner said. “I wish I had this mentality starting February 16, but baseball is a streaky game and nobody is perfect. I’m just trying to help my team win the best I can. I had never beaten Ole Miss until tonight so that was a pretty fun one.”
Ole Miss tied the game with a run in the fourth inning but the Golden Eagles responded. Bryant Bowen hit a home run and a double from Hunter LeBlanc gave Southern Miss a 3-1 lead in the bottom frame of the fourth inning. The Rebels continued to put pressure and scored two runs in the seventh inning tied the game at 3-3 with just one out.
J.C. Keys then got the call an inning earlier then he was told prior to the game.
“I knew I was going to out there,” Keys said. “I had talked to [pitching coach Christian Ostrander] and he said I was actually going to go out there in the eighth inning but I came in the seventh inning.”
Keys closed the top of the seventh inning and struck out Ole Miss’ Thomas Dillard and Zabowski, both of whom entered the game with the highest slugging percentages for the Ole Miss lineup at .542 and .547, respectively.
“When you have a guy that is throwing well and they just aren’t taking very good swings or taking good hacks of it,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “From an offensive coach at one time you want to see another arm. You hope another one comes in. We felt like tonight that he was our best option. He’s a senior and we really felt like this was his moment tonight under this stage to go out and finish this thing off and he did. He didn’t disappoint.”
Keys kept the Rebels off the board for the rest of the night.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Danny Lynch drove in a run in the put Southern Miss back on top. However, the dagger came in the eighth inning with another at-bat by Wallner. Wallner went yard again, this time over the right field wall. That home run was his seventh in the last nine games.
“He’s such a good player,” Berry said. “When you are an athlete and there are eyes on you [and] there’s a lot of national attention on you the pressure for a 20-year old can sometimes be overwhelming. You try to do more and to meet those expectations. Sometimes you end up going backwards on yourself and then all of sudden you start doubting yourself, losing some confidence, but it doesn’t surprise that he has worked himself out of it.”
Ole Miss’ leadoff runner got on base with an error to open the ninth inning, but it did not phase Keys as he closed the game by striking out the side and recording the win. In 2.2 innings pitched, Keys struck out six of the nine batters he faced.
“That [was] electric,” Wallner said. “He is one the best relievers in college baseball. Maybe his stats don’t always show it, but I knew he was going to get out there and get all three outs and honestly, he had to go get four. That’s what just picking up teammates is and that’s just mature. It just shows the kind of teammate and player J.C. really is.”
Wallner finished the night 2-for-3 with two RBI, LeBlanc finished 2-for-4 with an RBI and Lynch finished 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Southern Miss will face Florida Atlantic, which sits in second place in the Conference USA standings in the coming weekend series. First pitch for Friday is set for 6 p.m.