BILOXI, Miss. (Conference USA) - Being behind the plate, Southern Miss catcher Cole Donaldson had the catbird’s seat on the icy-smooth performance by freshman right-hander Gabe Shepard Saturday morning at The First 2019 C-USA Baseball Championship presented by Air Force Reserve at MGM Park.
“What he did was just incredible, especially for a freshman,” Donaldson said. “He had his stuff (Saturday), and it’s so fun to catch, so easy to catch.
“I mean, I can’t draw it up any better than that.”
Few have, and none who have thrown in the previous 23 conference baseball championships, drew it up better than Shepard and two relievers in USM’s 6-0 win over Rice in the semifinal round.
Shepard threw 7 1/3 innings of no-hit baseball, striking out a career-best 12 and allowing only one baserunner on a leadoff walk in the sixth inning.
Cody Carroll and Hunter Stanley finished off the first no-hitter in C-USA postseason and the first by any C-USA team since Central Florida in 2008.
“It was so different (Saturday), I just felt like I was in a zone,” said Shepard, who was lifted after 91 pitches, and exited to a standing ovation from the predominantly USM-leaning crowd. “I had the greatest fans behind me, a team that loved me behind me. I just felt like I was in a different zone.”
Certainly, Shepard was breathing of rarified air as he joined some elite company, including:
*Matching Nick Sandlin’s 12-strikeout effort in the opening round of the 2018 C-USA postseason championship. Shepard and Sandlin are among just five players in the 24 years of the conference tournament to throw 12 or more strikeouts in a game
*Shepard, Carroll and Stanley combined for 14 strikeouts, tying the C-USA postseason mark for strikeouts in a game
*The trio tossed the seventh no-hitter in USM history and the first since Cliff Russum turned the trick against Eastern Illinois in 2004
“Man, wasn’t that exciting?” said left fielder Gabe Montenegro, whose diving catch in the left-center field gap in the eighth inning helped preserve the no-no. “That was fun.”
Not so much for the seventh-seeded Owls (26-33, who not only could not generate any offense, saw their pitching staff serve up three solo home runs, including back-to-back longballs in a big, three-run seventh inning.
“The biggest thing, going into the top of the seventh inning, it was time to put a crooked number on the board, because three runs in this park is not much,” USM coach Scott Berry said.
“We were letting them hang around, so our ability to go out and go back-to-back dingers and then (add a two-out run), that was really big.”
Big enough to send the second-seeded Golden Eagles (37-19) into their fourth consecutive C-USA championship title game. USM will meet the Florida Atlantic/UTSA winner at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
“Consistency, which is something that we haven’t had a lot this year, we’ve had over the years here,” Berry said. “We are looking forward to it.”
USM got a big game from designated hitter Bryant Bowen, who hit a pair of solo home runs. His 10th of the season gave the Golden Eagles a 1-0 in the second inning and his 11th followed Matt Wallner’s 21st in the three-run, seventh-inning rally.
The eighth-inning also included a double by Donaldson and Tim Lynch’s RBI-single.
USM scored an unearned run in the fourth and Fred Franklin drove in a run in the fifth inning.
Shepard (2-0) picked up his second consecutive win. Carroll closed out the final two outs of the eighth inning and Stanley finished off the ninth.