BILOXI, MS (C-USA) - Conference USA's Pitcher of the Year is an awfully tough act to follow.
But Southern Miss Stevie Powers has more than held his own as the second man in the Golden Eagles' rotation behind Nick Sandlin, and the junior left-hander came up big Saturday afternoon in the 2018 Conference USA Baseball Championship presented by The First.
Powers, who had not pitched since May 5 because of tightness in the forearm of his throwing arm, allowed two runs on four hits over seven innings and the Golden Eagles never trailed in a 5-3 victory over UTSA at MGM Park.
"We've won 41 games because we've done a lot of things right," USM coach Scott Berry said. "(Friday), we did a lot of things right and we beat a really good UTSA team who has been playing very good here at the end of the year."
Powers, who has spent the bulk of the season in the weekend rotation, said Sandlin's four-hit, 2-0 gem Thursday against Alabama-Birmingham in USM's tourney-opening game gave the Golden Eagles a huge boost.
"Coming after Nick Sandlin, that's tough to follow up," Powers said with a smile. "It's been a tough job all year for me.
"But (Sandlin) came out and set the tone for us (Thursday), and I just wanted to come out and emulate him and put ourselves in a good position for (Saturday)."
With the win, the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles (41-15) moved on to the championship semifinals, and will take on the winner of Friday's final elimination game between fourth-seeded Charlotte and UTSA at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Sophomore right-hander Walker Powell (7-2) is expected to get Saturday's starting nod for the Golden Eagles.
If USM wins that game, it would move onto Sunday's 1 p.m. title game for a third consecutive season.
We're sitting pretty," said third baseman Luke Reynolds, who turned a game-ending double play with a whirling tag on a runner coming into third, before righting himself for a strong throw to first. "We've just got to keep playing hard and keep playing together, and we can win this."
USM junior outfielder Matt Wallner drove in two runs with a first-inning single before skying his 14th home run of the season in the third inning to help the top-seeded Golden Eagles a three-run cushion it would rely on over the remainder of the game.
"It was absolutely crucial," Wallner said of Friday's win. "The weather, you never know what's going on. We don't have to wear ourselves out (Friday night) and play another game, which is huge, and we're able to save our pitching a little bit, which is big-time."
Wallner and designated hitter Daniel Keating drove in first-inning runs with singles off UTSA left-hander Steven Dressler (5-4) and Wallner sent a Dressler offering far, far over the wall in right-center field in the third inning.
"That one felt pretty good off the bat," Wallner said.
But UTSA (32-22) fought back. Powers, who had retired the first 10 batters he faced, hit left fielder Ryan Stacy with a pitch, giving the fifth-seeded Roadrunners. One out later, the bases were empty again after first baseman Tony Beam cracked his sixth home run of the season to get UTSA within 3-2.
USM shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd's single in the sixth inning bumped the lead back to 4-2, but the Roadrunners would keep the pressure on until the last out.
With two outs in the seventh inning, third baseman Chris Estrada hit a single and catcher Garrett Moon a double to put runners on second and third. But Powers got a grounder to short to end the threat.
Senior Trent Driver relieved Powers to start the eighth inning, and allowed an unearned run, with a single by center fielder Trent Bowles making the score 4-3. But Driver stranded the tying run at third to leave USM ahead going into the final inning.
In the ninth, USM loaded the bases with one out on singles by Boyd, second baseman Matthew Guidry, Boyd and left fielder Gabe Montenegro, and scored an insurance run on a four-pitch walk by Reynolds.
In the ninth, Driver hit right fielder Dylan Rock and gave a one-out single to Moon. But Driver got shortstop Joshua Lamb to ground to Reynolds that turned into the game-ender.