HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Southern Miss freshman right-hander Walker Powell admitted to a case of nerves Sunday prior to making the first start of his collegiate career.
But with the Golden Eagles’ scrambling a bit to find answers for a starting rotation struck by late-season injury and ineffectiveness, Powell turned in a more-than-good enough performance.
No. 18 Southern Miss blew open a tight game with a seven-run seventh inning as the Golden Eagles wrapped up a Conference USA series sweep of WKU with a 13-4 victory before 2,728 at Pete Taylor Park.
The win kept Southern Miss (34-14, 18-6 C-USA) tied atop the conference standings with No. 14 Rice (31-14, 18-6). No. 17 Florida Atlantic (33-13, 17-7) remained one game back of C-USA’s co-leaders, with Marshall (27-17, 16-8) two games behind.
With their fourth C-USA sweep of the spring, the Golden Eagles improved to 22-3 overall at Pete Taylor Park and are 12-0 in series finales this season.
“It’s hard to sweep in college baseball, in Division I,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “I don’t care where you are or who you are, it’s tough.
“But are guys have been resilient. Our pitching’s been a little wounded, so hats off to our bullpen and what they were able to do.”
With starter Cord Cockrell limited to two batters Friday because of shoulder issues and former Saturday starter Nick Johnson bumped to the bullpen, Powell gave the Golden Eagles 4 2/3 innings of effective baseball Sunday, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits. He walked one while striking out two.
“I felt good in the bullpen before the game and I just wanted to go out there and do the best that I could,” Powell said. “It was my first start and I just wanted to go out there and do the best I could. I hadn’t thrown more than two or three innings in relief, so I wanted to do the best I could and let the offense get rolling.”
Relievers Luke Lowery (4-0), Hayden Roberts, Nate Johnson and Clay Tageant followed Powell and checked WKU on three hits over 4 1/3 scoreless innings.
Southern Miss scored 12 of its runs in two innings, posting a five-run second inning to go with its seventh-inning splurge.
“The hitting got hot,” Southern Miss center fielder Jake Sandlin said. “There were lots of zeroes, but we had some really big innings, so that’s always good. However you score them, it doesn’t matter if you score them.”
WKU took its first lead of the weekend, scoring twice in the second inning. With two outs, designated hitter Kaleb Duckworth doubled and scored on catcher Hunter Wood’s single to center.
When left fielder Leiff Clarkson attempted to bunt his way on board, Powell threw the ball up the right-field line, allowing Wood to score.
That lead didn’t last long, as some misadventures in the Hilltoppers’ outfield aided a five-run rally by the Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss left fielder Hunter Slater led off the bottom of the second against WKU left-hander Ryan Thurston (3-4) by dropping a flyball single into left and moved to second on a groundout by catcher Chuckie Robinson.
After Thurston walked third baseman Tracy Hadley and shortstop Nick Dawson to load the bases, right fielder Dylan Burdeaux hit a liner into left that a diving Clarkson just missed, scoring Slater and Hadley. When center fielder Zach Janes bobbled the ball backing up the play, both Dawson and Burdeaux moved up a base.
Sandlin followed with a towering fly down the left-field line that Clarkson lost in the sun, allowing the ball to fall for a two-run double.
First baseman Tim Lynch followed with a big hopper that WKU first baseman Harrison Scanlon threw away at first base, allowing Sandlin to score for a 5-2 lead.
WKU cut the lead to 5-3 when second baseman Steven Kraft sent his team-high fifth home run of the season just to the right of the scoreboard in left-center field to lead off the fourth inning.
After the Hilltoppers made it 5-4 in the fifth on Scanlon’s RBI-single, Southern Miss designated hitter Daniel Keating pushed the lead back to two runs when he led off the bottom of the inning with his fourth home run of the season.
The Golden Eagles polished off Hilltoppers by tying their largest, single-inning outburst of the season in a seventh inning that saw Southern Miss send 12 men to the plate.
Robinson collected his 10th and 11th RBIs of the series with a two-run single.
Dawson hit a RBI double in the big inning, while Sandlin and Lynch each had run-scoring singles. Second baseman Chase Scott drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk, while Keating pushed another run across when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. Slater and Lynch each finished with three hits, as Southern Miss bruised six WKU pitchers for 16 hits. Sandlin, Dawson and Scott each had two hits.
Wood and shortstop Steve DiPuglia each had two of the Hilltoppers’ nine hits. WKU third baseman Danny Hudzina, who entered the weekend as C-USA’s leading hitter with a .430 batting average, went 0-for-10 with a walk.
Southern Miss will return to Pete Taylor Park next weekend, hosting Louisiana Tech in the Golden Eagles’ final, three-game C-USA home series of the regular season.