BILOXI, MS (C-USA) - Conference USA's Pitcher of the Year, Nick Sandlin, lived up to every line of his billing in the opening round of the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship presented by The First.
The junior right-hander turned in a complete-game shutout Thursday afternoon, scattering four hits while striking out 12 and walking just one as the top-seeded Golden Eagles (40-15) eased past eighth-seeded UAB at MGM Park.
"I am proud of every single aspect of our team," said UAB coach Brian Shoop, who landed the Blazers back in C-USA's postseason after a two-year absence. "Nick Sandlin was the difference.
"To participate on this stage, it's just so important for our program. But, again, we just ran into Nick Sandlin, who's just as good as there is out there."
Sandlin (9-0) used 118 pitches to log his third shutout of the season and second of the Blazers. In two outings against UAB, Sandlin limited the Blazers to 10 hits and three walks while striking out 21.
Sandlin tied the C-USA postseason mark for the third-most strikeouts in a tournament game while moving into fourth place on USM's single-season strikeout list with 135.
"He understands what his job is, and that's to keep the opposition from scoring," USM coach Scott Berry said. "We're just grateful that he was able to take the mound (Thursday) and that we were able to scratch a couple of runs for him.
"The storyline (Thursday) was Nick Sandlin and his ability to take the mound and dominate."
USM left-hander Stevie Powers was expected to start the first game of the tournament against the Blazers (21-32), which had been scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
But weather delays Wednesday pushed the game into Thursday, and put Sandlin on track to make his 14th start of the season.
"Found out last night," Sandlin said. "Stevie was going to throw the first game, but then (with the game being bumped), with all the rest and setting up for next week (NCAA postseason), we just decided I was going to throw (Thursday)."
USM needed Sandlin's "A" game because UAB left-hander Ryan Ruggles (2-4) and right-handed reliever Ryan Wesson gave the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles all they could handle.
Ruggles allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits, while walking three and striking out four. Wesson allowed just one hit of shutout baseball over three innings, striking out four.
"UAB, they really battled us," Berry said. "They gave us fits. Their pitchers did an outstanding job pitching out of innings and really minimizing."
USM, which posted 40 wins in a season for the third consecutive season, scored its first run in the second inning, without benefit of a hit. All-C-USA outfielder Matt Wallner walked, went to second on an error, third on a hit by pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly.
The Golden Eagles made it 2-0 in the sixth. After right fielder Mason Irby and third baseman Luke Reynolds singled and Wallner walked to load the bases, first baseman Hunter Slater singled sharply to right field.
But USM could not take advantage, as Wesson came in to shut down the rally, and USM could get little going after.
Sandlin was in trouble just twice. In the second, UAB first baseman Thomas Johns doubled off the left-field wall and catcher Stephen Dobbs singled to shortstop. A sacrifice bunt moved both runners up a base and Sandlin hit third baseman Price Visintainer to load the bases.
But Sandlin struck out the next two Blazers to escape the inning.
Sandlin retired the next 12 batters before allowing a leadoff single in the seventh. He promptly got a double-play grounder and a groundout to third base and looked locked in to go the distance.
Sandlin worked around a hit batter in the eighth inning, and had to dodge a two-on, one-out situation in the ninth. But Sandlin got his last strikeout and then a popout to end the game.