USM in C-USA title tilt

Published 12:24 am Sunday, May 24, 2009

Southern Miss won their third consecutive game in the 2009 Conference USA Tournament to eliminate Tulane with tonight’s 3-1 victory and advance to the championship game of the tournament.

The Golden Eagles will face Rice at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday at Pete Taylor Park, with a conference Championship and an automatic berth to a NCAA Championship on the line.

Fans at Pete Taylor Park were treated to a thrilling Golden Eagle victory in route to the team’s third C-USA Championship game appearance in the last seven seasons.

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Through the first six innings, fourth-seeded Tulane flooded the bases with runners, but only one managed to cross the plate once, as the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles took down their archrivals for the second time in three days, claiming a 3-1 victory before 2,908 fans.

The Green Wave (34-25) stranded 13 baserunners through the first six innings, and didn’t score a run despite loading the bases in three of the four innings between the third and sixth innings, while the Golden Eagles (35-22) were doing just enough offensively to get to earn a day off before meeting second-seeded Rice (38-15) at 1 p.m. Sunday in the championship game.

“A little of the magic’s come back,” Southern Miss coach Corky Palmer said. “Rice is playing well. They got really determined after losing the regular-season title in the last weekend. So, they’re playing well, but we’re playing at Pete Taylor Park, so let’s see what happens.”

Golden Eagle left-hander Jeff Stanley (4-1) spent much of his Friday night doing an escape act that Houdini might have envied, but in the end, he did exactly what the Golden Eagles needed: he gave USM a chance to win the game.

“I tend to make things harder on myself than it needs to be, so I’m used to that,” said Stanley, who allowed six hits and walked three, but gave up only one run while striking out five. “I was trying to be too careful, pitched too careful, because I didn’t want to give up a big inning.

“All I can do is hang by a rope until somebody comes along to pull me off the cliff.”

That somebody came in two: the USM faithful and reliever Josh Fields, a converted infielder who picked up the first save of his career with 3 2/3 innings of perfect baseball.

“When I ran out on the field before the game, and the roar that they gave me, I was overwhelmed,” Stanley said. “They were there all night, and every time I got in a tough situation, I knew I wasn’t by myself. I knew I was never alone on that mound no matter how much I felt like it.”

And Palmer knew he wasn’t alone. When Stanley tired, and two other relievers couldn’t find the strike zone, Palmer turned to Fields, who rewarded his faith with the performance of his career.

“Win, lose or draw, I knew he was going to throw strikes,” Palmer said. “We were going to throw strikes, and whatever happened, happened. I wasn’t going to pitch anybody else the rest of the game but (closer Colin) Cargill. It was unbelievable what Fields did. He gave us a shot in the arm.”

Fields came in with the bases loaded, one out, and a 2-0 count on Tulane catcher Jeremy Schaffer, who already had singled twice.

But Schaffer got Fields to pop up his first pitch and struck out leftfielder Scott Powell to end the inning.

Tulane never managed another baserunner over the last three innings.

Second baseman James Ewing, rightfielder Tyler Koelling and leftfielder Kameron Brunty each drove in runs for the Golden Eagles off Tulane left-hander Matt Petiton (5-3). The Green Wave’s only score came on Jared Dyer’s second home run of the tournament.

Southern Miss pitchers allowed just five runs in three Golden Eagle tournament wins, never more than two in any one game.

The only better pitching performance: Rice, which had allowed three runs in three wins.

That’s OK, Stanley said.

“I don’t know if anybody would have given us a chance to get to Sunday, but now we’re just one game away,” Stanley said of the title, which comes with an NCAA invitation. “Rice is a good team, but we’ve just got to be better for one day to on to a regional.”

First pitch for Sunday is set for 1:00 p.m. at Pete Taylor Park. Conference USA Pitcher of the Year Todd McInnis will make his second start of the tournament after earning the victory in the opening game.