Southern Miss (26-13, 13-6 Conference USA) earned the series win with three victories against Western Kentucky University (WKU), but failed to move into the top spot in the C-USA West division when the Hilltoppers took the last game of the series.
Southern Miss survived a late-inning battle with Western Kentucky to take the first game of the series 6-5.
The Golden Eagles got onto the scoreboard first after freshman Dustin Dickerson hit a sacrifice fly in the second inning. Though Southern Miss led throughout seven innings, WKU took the lead with four runs in the eighth inning, capitalized by a three-run homer from pinch hitter Ty Crittenberger that gave the Hilltoppers a 5-4 lead.
However, Southern Miss responded with a productive inning of their own, as freshman Reed Trimble hit an RBI double to tie the game. Southern Miss then took back the lead as it scored on a fielding error.
“It hurt when they got that four spot but we never put our heads down,” junior Gabe Montenegro said. “We got to the dugout and we just tried to get that first base runner in and keep the momentum in our favor.”
Trimble made a diving catch to end the game, which prevented WKU’s runners on the corners from scoring.
“That was a phenomenal catch and probably could be a game saver for sure if we didn’t do anything there in the bottom half, but it was a tremendous athletic play on his part,” Head Coach Scott Berry said.
Senior Hunter Stanley led the way for Southern Miss, recording seven strikeouts and allowing five hits and three runs through 7.2 innings.
“He’s Mr. Consistent,” Berry said. “Once again, he’s a lead dog that goes out there on Friday nights for us and sets the tone for the rest of the series.”
Stanley got off to a strong start and retired the first nine of ten batters he faced. He held the Hilltoppers scoreless until WKU hit a solo home run in the sixth inning. But the Golden Eagles continued to be productive from the bottom of the order, as sophomore Blake Johnson hit an RBI double in the sixth. All four of the last batters each earned one hit in the order they went to bat.
“We’ve got to have that,” Berry said. “You want balance in your lineup. You’ve always got a bunch of top hitters at the top, but you have to have those guys at the bottom contribute and, more importantly not only get RBIs, but get on base for those guys when that lineup turns over that they can drive those kids in, too.”
Sophomore Ryan Och took the mound for Southern Miss in the seventh inning but struggled, allowing two runs and a hit with two errors on 19 pitches. In the end, sophomore Garrett Ramsey took the mound in the final frame and earned his ninth save of the season.
“I know Ryan didn’t have his best stuff, but he’s been awesome for us all year and that’s going to happen sometimes — he’s human,” Hunter Stanley said. “I look forward to the next time he gets out there.”
Southern Miss won the second game in another close finish with the same 6-5 score.
Even though WKU finished with a higher total of 11 hits, Southern Miss’s consecutive home runs in the fifth inning proved to be crucial in beating the Hilltoppers.
Sophomore Charlie Fischer hit a two-run homer in the fifth, with sophomore Christopher Sargent following with a solo home run of his own to push ahead 6-3. Prior to the game, WKU’s pitcher Sean Bergeron had only allowed one home run during the season.
“We stayed right in the middle of the ring and exchanged blows with them just like we have in the past three to four weeks. This young team has really grown up and knows how to compete,” Berry said. “Even when the game was tied 3-3, we didn’t feel we were out of it and we were able to manufacture and produce run score innings […] it was a gritty win that WKU fought hard for.”
The Hilltoppers added two runs, but freshman pitcher Hurston Waldrep closed out the game and earned the save.
Though this is only his second game back after an injury benched him through five games, Fischer showed no signs of slowing down, and led the team with two hits and three RBIs.
“It felt great to be back in the lineup,” Fischer said about returning to action. “When I’m playing or not, it’s always fun to be around these guys and playing baseball. [In Game One], I was a little sped up and I hadn’t seen a lot of pitching, but I calmed myself down and felt like I got back in the swing of things.”
Sargent described how the team feels to have Fischer back in the lineup.
“Charlie’s been there since day one and he’s been solid all the way through,” Sargent said. “It was tough to see him go down, but knowing that he’s coming back stronger than ever, it’s been great. We love it.”
Senior Walker Powell started the game for Southern Miss and threw for five innings. He struck out four batters, allowing eight hits and three runs. Powell is set to break his career-high of strikeouts in a single season at a record pace. Through nine appearances, Powell has logged 52 strikeouts much faster than his 2019 career-high of 73 strikeouts through 16 games.
Southern Miss rode an early advantage and a complete game from freshman pitcher Ben Ethridge to beat WKU 3-0 in the second game of the doubleheader.
Southern Miss got off to a strong start in the first inning by scoring three runs. Sargent got the team on the scoreboard first with an RBI double, which was followed by an unearned run from a throwing error and an RBI single from sophomore Danny Lynch.
Southern Miss’s early start marked the third time the team scored first in the series, which Berry said has been an important improvement throughout the season. It is even more important now as the team continues to improve at-bat.
“If we can get a lead, then we certainly have a chance to continue to build on it because our guys [pitchers] have the ability to have those shutdown innings and allow us to extend it,” Berry said. “We’ve seen earlier in the season when we were much younger and untested that when we fell behind, we had a tough time getting back in it, but our guys have really improved at the plate offensively.”
Southern Miss did not score for the remainder of the game, but the lead was enough, as Ethridge held Western Kentucky scoreless throughout the entire game. Ethridge allowed only three hits and recorded his second double-digit strikeout performance of the season with 11 strikeouts.
Sargent described how Ethridge’s performance helped the team in their second game of the doubleheader.
“It’s just a cruise to the game, makes it fun and makes it easy for us. He throws strikes, fills it up and [does] a heck of a job,” Sargent said.
Ethridge allowed two consecutive hits in the third inning, but retired the side in order for the final four innings.
“I felt like in the fifth inning there was a gear that he [Ethridge] changed to and he really started getting stronger and getting swing and misses,” Berry said. “His sliders, all of a sudden, became a real plus pitch for him, and they had no answer for it.”
After going hitless in the first game, Montenegro hit a leadoff double to start the game and recorded another double in the second. The Golden Eagles also had multi-hit performances from Sargent and Lynch as the team notched a total of eight hits.
However, Southern Miss could not earn the series sweep, as the Hilltoppers dominated throughout the last game and won 9-4.
While Southern Miss once again held the early lead, the Hilltoppers caught up with a five-run inning in the sixth that the Golden Eagles simply could not come back from.
“I don’t feel that we brought the energy that we were bringing to the rest of the games,” Sargent said. “We were dragging around and got out a little too late.”
Overall, the Hilltoppers bested the Golden Eagles at-bat, notching 12 hits compared to Southern Miss’s four hits. This may have been due to Trimble’s absence, as he suffered from a swollen knee after being hit by a pitch in the third game.
“We didn’t handle it [his absence] very well and I think it hurt us both offensively and defensively,” Berry said.
Sophomore Drew Boyd earned the start for the Golden Eagles, but was pulled out in the fifth inning after allowing a run. Boyd finished the game with six strikeouts, five hits and three runs allowed.
After Boyd, the Golden Eagles rotated five other pitchers, who each allowed runs except sophomore Aubrey Gillentine, who threw 17 pitches in the ninth.
“We just didn’t get the stops that we needed. […] We didn’t perform well really in any phase,” Berry said.
Southern Miss scored two runs on loaded bases in the second inning as Lynch ran home on a hit-by-pitch and Dickerson hit an RBI single. However, the Hilltoppers tied the game 2-2 in the third inning by driving in two runs from a single.
Sargent hit his eighth home run of the season with a solo shot in the third inning. But the Golden Eagles did not get a hit again until the seventh inning, only responding to the Hilltoppers’ scoring onslaught with a run in the sixth inning.
The Golden Eagles got two walks in the eighth inning with a chance to narrow the lead, but they were then retired by Western Kentucky. Berry said that the team let its focus down after earning the series win, but was proud of how the team played overall during the weekend.
“If you take it game by game and you’re committed to the approach and focus, then you should perform better than we did tonight, but I am proud that we won the series of moving forward,” Berry said.
Southern Miss will play at Rice next weekend in a four-game series.