The Southern Miss baseball squad opened up their 2016 campaign this weekend against Eastern Illinois, sweeping the Panthers 3-0.
USM’s goal for this season was to not just finish strong, but to also start fast.
“Start faster, and continue to finish strong,” said head coach Scott Berry. “It’s just simple the game-by-game approach.”
Eastern Illinois was the first to strike in the series, scoring on an unearned run at the top of the second inning. USM was able to come out of the inning giving up only one run.
First to put point up for the Golden Eagles, Taylor Braley went deep for USM’s first score of the season and the first home run.
The Golden Eagles’ motto finally came to fruition in the bottom of the fourth inning when they drove in three runs led by a Dylan Burdeaux single to start the rally.
It only took three hits to get three runs on the board, and Southern Miss actually had more to give as they left two stranded on base.
The Golden Eagles would drive in one run in both the fifth and seventh innings, and in turn, held the Panthers without a run for the rest of the game.
Southern Miss would carry over the momentum into the second game of the series, blasting Eastern Illinois 18-1.
The scoreboard said it all, with Southern Miss scoring 18 runs on just 13 hits and no errors. The offensive prowess of USM was all across the roster as eight of the nine USM starters recorded a hit.
The focus of the game was not the route that USM put on Eastern Illinois but rather the return of Michael Gilbert.
The entire crowd rose to their feet after the senior infielder returned to the field for the first time in a year and a half from severe head and knee injuries. Gilbert made two plate appearances but did not get on base.
“It’s been a long journey, for sure,” Gilbert told the Hattiesburg American after the contest. “I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to experience that again. Words can’t describe that feeling of walking up to the box and having the whole crowd stand up and, more importantly, having my teammates coming out in front of the dugout.”
Although Gilbert was not in on the action for Southern Miss offensively, his presence at the top of the sixth inning was a good feel for Southern Miss fans everywhere.
Later on in the year, Gilbert’s ability to help the USM offense will be tested. The last time he saw extended time for the Golden Eagles was in 2014, when he batted a .229 with two doubles and six RBIs. After the emotional second game of the series, the Golden Eagles were finally faced with adversity from the Panthers.
Kirk McCarty kicked things off in the game striking out five Panthers in only two innings, and six in four innings pitched. He finished the day with five innings pitched, giving up six hits, four runs and struck out six batters.
USM was able to get on the scoreboard first with a wild pitch in the bottom of the fourth inning, but Eastern Illinois quickly strike back with a score of their own in the top of the fifth.
Heading into the top of the sixth inning, the game was all tied up at 1-1. Eastern Illinois took advantage of McCarty’s fatigue in the inning, racking up three runs in short order. Luke Lowery was called in to complete the inning, getting Southern Miss out of trouble.
By the end of the sixth inning, the Golden Eagles had fell behind 4-2.
Southern Miss would have to rally in the seventh inning behind a Braley solo ding over the fence.
In the subsequent bottom of the eight, Nick Dawson and Tim Lynch capitalized on the eight and ninth home runs for USM’s ninth home runs of the season.
The Golden Eagles capitalized on a weaker Eastern Illinois squad and look forward to keeping the momentum going against stronger competition later in the season.
USM will face Louisiana- Monroe on Tuesday at home at 6 p.m.