USM heading to Biloxi as C-USA’s No. 2 seed

USM heading to Biloxi as C-USA’s No. 2 seed
USM moves onto the C-USA Tournament as the No. 2 seed and will face Rice at 12 p.m. Wednesday in Biloxi. (Source: WDAM)

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi dropped its third consecutive Conference USA baseball series with a 13-10 loss to the University of Alabama-Birmingham Saturday afternoon at Pete Taylor Park.

And that loss in the regular-season finale narrowed USM’s postseason possibilities to one: To make a fourth, consecutive NCAA Regional appearance, the Golden Eagles will have to win next week’s C-USA tournament.

“It’s that simple,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “I don’t think there’s any other choice. If we want to continue to play after the (C-USA) tournament, we’re going to have to win it, because we are not worthy of an at-large (bid).

“So, we know what we have to do, and that’s half the battle sometimes when you don’t know, if you’re on the bubble. But it’s pretty evident we’re going to have to win that.”

The Golden Eagles (34-19), who have lost six of their final 10 games, enter the C-USA tournament as the second seed in the eight-team field at MGM Park in Biloxi. USM will face seventh-seeded Rice (24-31) at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The Golden Eagles dropped two-of-three games at Reckling Park in Houston against the Owls on May 11-12.

“Two of Conference USA’s best programs, so that’s awesome, let’s go,” said Matt Wallner, who became USM’s all-time home run king Saturday. “So, I’m excited and ready to get going.”

Berry said he expects the Golden Eagles to get a second dose of senior left-hander Evan Kravetz, who held USM to three hits over 7 1/3 shutout innings.

Kravetz, who twice has been selected C-USA pitcher of the week this season, struck out 10 Golden Eagles as the Owls went on to win 4-0.

“I don’t think he threw this weekend,” Berry said. “Rice knew going into that series against Marshall that it meant nothing. They knew they (the Owls) were in the tournament, but that the only way they can get to the NCAA Tournament is to win the conference tournament.

“So, they’re gearing everything up. They haven’t announced a starter yet, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t Kravetz.”

Florida Atlantic University (36-18), which locked up the top seed in the tourney Friday night, completed a three-game sweep of Middle Tennessee State University Saturday with its third, one-run victory of the series. That gave the Owls sole possession of C-USA’s regular-season championship.

The Blazers (27-29), who were one of four C-USA teams to miss qualifying for the tournament, battered six USM pitchers for 17 hits while accepting four walks and getting hit by pitches three times.

USM took a 2-0 lead in the first inning off UAB starter Tanner Graham on Hunter Slater’s RBI grounder and Wallner’s solo shot just to the right of the center field wall.

But the Blazers stormed back, scoring five runs over the next three innings off USM starter Cody Carroll.

USM pulled back within a run in the fifth inning on Slater’s triple and Erick Hoard’s run-scoring grounder.

That’s as close as the Golden Eagles would get, as the Blazers scored seven runs over the next two innings.

USM came back with four runs of its own in the seventh inning on Slater’s three-run home run, his 11th of the season, and Cole Donaldson’s double.

UAB added a run in the ninth before USM added a pair in the bottom of the inning on Wallner’s two-run homer.

It was the second homer of the day for Wallner, his fourth of the series and 19th of the season, It also was the 54th of his three-year career with the Golden Eagles as he passed the 53 home runs Marc Maddox hit between 2003-06.

Wallner also walked twice and was hit by a pitch Saturday, marking the second consecutive day he had reached base five times. He scored three times and knocked in three runs.

Slater finished with two hits, three runs and five RBIs. Gabe Montenegro extended his hitting streak to 14 consecutive games and Matt Guidry ran his “reached-base-safely” streak to 48 games.

Carroll (2-2) got the pitching loss, allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits over 3 1/3 innings. He walked one and struck out two.

Graham (5-4) picked up the pitching win, allowing four runs on six hits in six innings. He walked four and struck out six.

UAB second baseman Ty Tolbert led the Blazers’ attack by going 5-for-5 with four RBIs, three runs and two stolen bases. Left fielder Blake Johnson had three hits, while third baseman Antonio Ralat had a home run and single, driving in two runs and scoring twice.

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