The Golden Eagles lost the regional final on June 5, 2017 but finished the season with a record-breaking number of wins overall.
The inconvenience of multiple rain delays plagued the Hattiesburg Regional on Monday, even during the waiting moments for the designated 1 p.m. first pitch. With fifteen minutes left before game time, light rain and consistent lighting pushed the game back nearly five hours. Whether the delays affected the Golden Eagles or not is speculation, but the game quickly turned to favor Mississippi State over Southern Mississippi.
The Bulldogs were not shaken after Southern Miss took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. USM starting pitcher Colt Smith struggled to find his way in the opening innings, eventually allowing Mississippi State to tie things up in the third. Caught in a jam with runners on second and third in the same frame, J.C. Keys was called from the bullpen to replace Smith. Unfortunately, Keys was unable to change the narrative. He got called for a balk during a battle with the first batter he faced, advancing the runner on third home.
However, the Mississippi State lead did not stay at 2-1 for long. Following the balk, Keys then gave Josh Lovelady the first homerun of his MSU career. This was a three-run shot, extending the Mississippi State lead to 5-1.
Even after finding a way to load the bases with no outs in the fourth inning, the Golden Eagles were unable to capitalize on anything remotely promising. This would be the case for Southern Miss in the remainder of the game as well, but not for the Bulldogs. MSU’s Brent Rooker hit his 22nd homerun of the season, a two-run effort making the score 7-1. The Bulldogs tacked on their final run in the seventh and coasted a seemingly effortless 8-1 win over Southern Miss. This victory undoubtedly came on the back of an incredible performance from starting pitcher Jacob Billingsley. Billingsley pitched a complete game, giving up a single run on six hits.
With this loss, Southern Miss was forced into a second matchup with Mississippi State to decide the Hattiesburg Regional champion.
First pitch of the deciding game was thrown at 9:30 p.m. CT, starting the battle for a coveted spot in the Super Regional Round. One team would have their hopes realized, the other’s destined to end. Both on the “Road to Omaha.” This was set up to be nothing less than a late night of baseball excitement.
Mississippi State continued their dominance for a short period of time. Rooker added to an already impressive day by hitting his second homer to put the Bulldogs in the driver’s seat. Like Southern Miss in the first game, this first inning lead was short-lived.
USM first baseman and senior Dylan Burdeaux led off what would become an explosive bottom of the first for the Golden Eagles with a home run of his own. Continuing to push forward, a double by Taylor Braley and the intentional walk of Matt Wallner got two on base for designated hitter Daniel Keating.
Keating made the Bulldogs pay by hitting a double that scored both Braley and Wallner, and then was brought home himself by the RBI single of Matthew Guidry. After two, Southern Miss already led by a margin of 4-1, and Mississippi State was forced to changed pitchers. Even so, the offense of the Golden Eagles could not be stopped. LeeMarcus Boyd hit a solo homer in the fourth, giving USM an additional insurance run that turned the lead into a four-run deficit.
Kirk McCarty controlled the mound for Southern Miss through four, but in the top of the fifth he began to lose his way. After giving up a single, followed by a walk, McCarty was replaced by Nick Sandlin.
With two runners on and no outs, Sandlin was in a jam. He seemed to have the poise necessary to fight his way out unscathed, recording two quick outs. However, Mississippi State’s Cody Brown was not ready to let this game slip away. Sandlin let a pitch slip and Brown took advantage, hitting a three-run home run. It was clear we were witnessing a slug fest with edge slighting leaning the way of Golden Eagles, 5-4.
With the gap closing, Southern Miss needed match the grit that the Bulldogs had displayed today. Hunter Slater’s no-doubt solo home run in the fifth did just that. Even ahead 6-4, it was understood that no lead was safe in this game.
Mississippi State continued to fight back, grinding themselves into a base loaded, no-outs situation in the seventh inning. Fortunately for Southern Miss, Sandlin found a way to get out of the inning giving up only one run. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs had edged their way back into reach with USM ahead now by only one run.
Brent Rooker struck again in the eighth. Somehow a fly ball hit by Rooker floated down the right field line and found the grass, resulting in a two-run single This dismantling turn of events for Southern Miss switched the tides drastically. The Bulldogs were in the lead for the first time since Rooker’s opening inning home run, now ahead 7-6.
In the bottom of the eighth, two straight controversial out calls at first had USM head coach Scott Berry extremely dissatisfied. Berry made his was across the field from the third base sideline to the first base umpire to argue both calls. During his second trip, the officials ejected Berry from the game.
Being ahead by one was not enough for Mississippi State. In the top of the ninth, the Bulldogs added another run to their lead that pushed Southern Miss into a two-run ballgame. This proved to be the dagger as the Golden Eagles failed to get anything going in their last chances at the plate.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs took their second straight win of the day and became the 2017 Hattiesburg Regional Champions. They now move on to the Super Regional Round in Baton Rouge, facing the LSU Tigers this weekend on their road to Omaha.
The Golden Eagles finish their historic season with a record of 50-16. After the game, family was the theme of the post-game presser.
“Sometimes this is an unforgiving game,” Berry said. “But it does give us things we’re thankful for, like our relationships with each other.”
Burdeaux was expectedly emotional at the podium.
“I’ll never forget these guys, the relationships I’ve made, and we’ll definitely be lifelong friends for sure,” Burdeaux said.
What should not get lost in this loss is how truly unbelievable this season was for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles baseball team.