BATON ROUGE, La. (WDAM) - A fly ball that became a home run by the width of outfield wall padding and a handrail set off Friday afternoon one of the more remarkable offensive displays in University of Southern Mississippi baseball history.
Shortstop Storme Cooper led off the top of the fifth inning with his first home run of the season and fourth of his career, not only tying the game but setting off a 12-run scoring spree as the Golden Eagles went on to bury Arizona State University 15-3 at Alex Box Stadium in the opening game of the Baton Rouge (La.) Regional.
Third-seeded USM (39-19) will meet host and top-seeded Louisiana State University (38-24) at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers won Friday’s nightcap 17-3 over Stony Brook University.
Second seeded ASU (37-18) will face fourth-seeded Stony Brook (31-22) in an elimination game at noon Saturday.
Cooper, who had just seven hits during the regular season, was one of three Golden Eagles with two hits in an inning that saw USM send 15 batters to the plate, mash nine hits, knock ASU ace Alec Marsh from the game and open NCAA Regional play with a victory for the fourth consecutive year.
“Pleased the way our guys showed up on a hot day to go out and compete,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “if you look at the body of work, you can’t help but notice the 12 runs that were scored in the fifth inning.
“Before that, in the third, we missed an opportunity with runners at first and second and nobody out and the top of the order up and we did not get any runs. But (starting pitcher) Gabe Shepard went back out did what he had to do to keep the momentum with us. Very proud of his outing (Friday).”
Shepard, who tossed 7 1/3 innings of no-hit ball in his last outing in the semifinal round of the 2019 Conference USA baseball tourney, shut down one of the country’s top offenses on two runs and six hits over 5 2/3 innings.
He struck out four and walked three.
“I had a ton of confidence going out there, just they believed in me and trusted me to go out there and get the job done.
“I feel like my teammates have confidence in me, and that makes me feel good, going out there and knowing they have my back.”
Shephard (3-0) allowed a run for the first time in three starts, when Arizona State center fielder Hunter Bishop singled to lead off the bottom of the fourth inning, moved to second on an infield dribbler, went to third base on a wild pitch and scored on catcher Lyle Lin’s sacrifice fly.
But after USM had managed just three hits over the first four innings, Cooper led off the fifth by turning a 3-2 offering from Marsh (9-4) into a fly ball to left field that just cleared the top of the wall, bouncing off the backside of the railing and into the first rows of the bleachers.
“It’s been a while,” said Cooper, whose last home run came against Old Dominion University in 2017. “I felt like we were playing with a lot of emotion, and I got the guys fired up.”
That hit indeed seemed to open the floodgates, as the baseball gods donned black-and-gold for the next 20 minutes or so.
Montenegro ripped a first-pitch double into the left-center field gap before Matt Guidry smoked a line drive into the glove of Spencer Torkelson at first base for the inning’s first out.
Hunter Slater coaxed a walk off Marsh and Matt Wallner lined a single off the wall past diving right fielder Carter Aldrete to score Montenegro for a 2-1 USM lead.
After a strikeout for the second out, Marsh uncorked a pair of wild pitches. The first scored Slater for a 3-1 USM lead and sent Wallner to second. The second put Wallner on third.
Cole Donaldson walked and Fred Franklin followed with a seeing-eye single into right field for a 4-1 lead.
That ended Marsh’s day and brought in reliever Blake Burzell, who did not retire any of the four batters he faced.
Danny Lynch greeted him with a flyball that plopped just inside the foul line for a double that scored Donaldson for a 5-1 lead.
Cooper then hustled down the line to beat out an infield single that scored both Donaldson and Lynch for a 7-1 lead.
Montenegro was generously credited with a single into the hole, ending Burzell’s day and bringing in Erik Tolman, who promptly walked Guidry to load the bases.
Slater slipped a single into right field, scoring Cooper and Montenegro for a 9-1 bulge and Wallner followed with his 22nd home run of the season, a three-run blast that nearly cleared the outfield bleachers in right-center field.
That capped the largest inning in USM baseball annals since the Golden Eagles scored 13 runs in the fifth inning against the University of Houston on March 24, 2012.
“What did they get? Ten runs with two outs?” asked Arizona State Tracy Smith. “One ball hits the line, one beats the shift, the others creep through. It’s just one of those innings. I don’t know if you have a description for it, other than they put balls in play (Friday) and found holes.
“We weren’t kicking it around. Outside maybe a walk, we weren’t really giving it to them. Give credit to them. They put the bat on the ball and found the space. Sometimes that happens and you just can’t shut it off.”
Indeed. Lynch added his own three-run homer in the eighth inning, and USM logged five hits over the final four innings. All told, USM racked up 17 hits and scored the fourth-most runs by a USM team in a regional game and the most sine a 19-6 win over Jacksonville State in the 2010 Auburn Regional.
“It helps when you get into a rhythm as an offense,” said Wallner, who is a home run shy of tying USM’s single-season record shared by four others. “That is how we were in the fifth inning. It made it easy just to go up to the plate and have a solid approach.”
Spotted an 11-run lead, Guidry worked a 1-2-3 fifth inning, but then couldn’t get out of the bottom of the sixth.
Torkelson led off the inning with his 22nd homer of the year, and, eventually, the Sun Devils had runners on first and second with two outs and Guidry at a 2-0 count and 112 pitches.
Guidry was relieved by Sean Tweedy, who finished the walk to Aldrete to load the bases, but then struck out Cole Austin to end the inning.
J.C. Keys worked two scoreless, walking one on the seventh inning only to roll a double-play grounder. He then struck the next four men he faced over the seventh and eighth innings.
ASU added a run in the ninth inning off Mason Strickland on a pinch-hit single by Nick Cheema.
Cooper and Lynch each had three hits for the Golden Eagles. Cooper drove in a season-high three runs and scored twice, while Lynch drove in four runs and scored twice.
Wallner, Franklin, Montenegro and Slater had two hits apiece, while Montenegro, Slater, Wallner and Cole Donaldson scored two runs each.
The Sun Devils finished with eight hits, with third baseman Gage Workman coming up with two singles.
Freshman Danny Lynch tacked on three runs with a two-out, three-run home run in the top of the eighth to give Southern Miss a 15-2 lead.
Keys returned to the mound in the eighth inning and struck out the side. Mason Strickland came on for Southern Miss to close out the ninth inning, allowing one run before ending the game on a double play.
Cooper finished the day with three hits and four RBI, while Wallner contributed two hits and four RBI. Lynch finished with three hits and four RBI.