HATTIESBURG – Oak Grove native J.C. Keys inherited a tough situation Wednesday against Ole Miss. His pitching, however, helped Southern Miss secure a much-needed 5-3 win over the Rebels.
“It felt really good to go out there and compete and just have fun with my brothers,” Keys said. “Being out there is a blessing.”
The win was important for Southern Miss’ resume, too. It entered the night with a 38th-ranked RPI while the Rebels came in with a No. 21 ranking. Southern Miss needs a strong finish down the final stretch of the regular season for a good RPI mark, and Wednesday helped.
After Ole Miss scored two runs to tie the game 3-3 in the seventh, the Rebels had a runner at second with one out. Keys entered the game and struck out Ole Miss’ four- and five-hole hitters, Thomas Dillard and Cole Zabowski, to end the threat.
Keys pitched the final 2.2 innings to earn the win in relief. He struck out six while facing one more than the minimum, and 31 of his 48 pitches were for strikes.
Keys knew he’d see the mound Wednesday, but the seventh inning was earlier than he thought.
“Just coming out there and filling the zone up,” Keys said of his mindset in the seventh. “Just competing, trusting your stuff and dominating the zone.”
Keys followed the seventh inning with a quick 1-2-3 frame in the eight before the leadoff man reached off an error in the ninth. Keys never wavered, though, and he struck out the side to end the game.
“Just pick your brother up,” Keys said of what went through his mind after the ninth-inning error. “(Will McGillis) made that error and I told him, ‘I got you.’”
Matt Wallner’s bat paced the Golden Eagles’ offense in the contest. The junior went 3-for-4 with two RBI and three runs, and two of his three hits were solo home runs. His first blast came in the second inning to give Southern Miss a 1-0 lead, then his shot in the eighth extended his team’s lead to 5-3.
Wallner’s two-homer game gives him 14 for the season and 49 for his career. He now has seven home runs in the last nine games.
“I’m not scared of anybody, and I wish I would have had this mentality February 16,” Wallner said. “Baseball is a streaky game and nobody is perfect. I’m just trying to help my team win as best as I can.”
Wallner also robbed Zabowski of a home run in the second inning that would have given Ole Miss a 1-0 lead. He got in position quick enough to put his back to the right-field wall, then he made the leap up with his 6-foot-5 frame.
“I think we set the tone pretty good pregame, but that definitely helped solidify it,” Wallner said. “We tried to keep momentum throughout the whole game, and little things like that definitely helped, especially against teams like Ole Miss.”
Freshman Hunter LeBlanc also continued his hot streak, going 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run. His double in the fourth scored Wallner to push Southern Miss ahead 3-1. Bryant Bowen hit a solo home run earlier in the frame to break the 1-1 tie. Then in the seventh with the score tied at 3-all, LeBlanc led off the inning with a single to right before stealing second base and scoring off a Danny Lynch single to center.
That gave Southern Miss the lead for good, 4-3.
The Golden Eagles (29-13, 17-4 in Conference USA) welcome Florida Atlantic (30-14, 15-6) this weekend for a big-time conference matchup. Southern Miss holds a two-game lead over the Owls with nine conference games to go, and a solid weekend would give the Golden Eagles a stranglehold on first place.
Game 1 between FAU and Southern Miss is set for 6 p.m. Friday while Game 2 is 2 p.m. Saturday. The final game of the series is schedule for 1 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re just playing as one,” Keys said. “Everything is coming together and this is the right time for this to happen.”