BATON ROUGE – A little Pete Taylor Park magic found its way west to Baton Rouge, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the host LSU Tigers in the second of two games for Southern Miss on Sunday in the Baton Rouge Regional.
A walk-off winner in the first elimination game of the day against Arizona State set up a rematch with LSU, then the Tigers outlasted the Golden Eagles 6-4 in the nightcap.
“We had some opportunities to hold the lead and even chip back into it, but LSU was a little bit too much for us,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “I can’t thank our guys enough for the effort they gave after a long first game.
“The message was people expected us to come out and not play hard. Use the excuse of ‘well, they just got through with a game in the hot sun.’ I said, ‘It’s not the expectations they put on us, it’s our expectations that they put on ourselves,’ and they didn’t disappoint today.”
Southern Mis’s season comes to an end with a 40-21 overall record and a second trip to a Regional final in the last three years.
In the loss, Southern Miss started junior Josh Lewis, who had only one start this season prior to Sunday. In the biggest game of his life, the Tigers got the scoring started early with a leadoff home run by Josh Smith in the bottom of the first inning. Then in the second, they used a single, walk and a triple during three straight at-bats with two outs to push the lead to 3-0.
“First pitch fastball, he ambushed it and he hit it out of the park,” Lewis said of the first-inning home run. “Next pitch, just get ready for the next batter.”
Lewis, indeed, settled down and pitched a gem for the rest of his outing. He put four straight zeros on the board while Southern Miss’ offense grabbed the 4-3 lead.
“(The Southern Miss coaches) just told me to come out there and compete,” Lewis said. “They would ride me as long as I could go. Really, it’s a moment I’ve been waiting for. I’m glad I went out there and gave us a chance to win. It didn’t come out like we wanted it to, but our team competed today and it said a lot about us.”
The left-hander exited after he gave up two straight singles to start the seventh. LSU would regain the lead in that inning, too.
He allowed five runs – all earned – over the course of his six-plus innings of work. Lewis also walked four with a strikeout while scattering eight hits. He never worked a 1-2-3 inning, allowing lone base runners in the third, fourth and fifth innings, and he worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in the sixth to preserve the lead for one more inning.
Pitching in front of 10,000-plus fans at Alex Box Stadium proved to not be too much for Lewis.
“I’ve been preparing for this all year,” Lewis said. “Especially in this environment, there’s not much you have to get ready for. It sikes you up enough so I can go out there and compete.”
After Lewis was taken out of the game in the seventh, LSU’s Zach Watson roped the second pitch he saw to center field off Southern Miss’ Jarod Wright. That gave the Tigers a 5-4 lead, then Saul Garza added a double to right-center two pitches later to push it to 6-4.
Southern Miss had Wright and Adam Jackson warming up in the bullpen in the seventh, but it opted to play the right-on-right matchup with Wright and LSU’s Watson and Garza. The five- and six-hole hitter made Southern Miss pay with the clutch hits.
While Lewis was dealing in the middle innings, Southern Miss found its first run in the fourth inning off a Gabe Montenegro solo shot. Then a three-spot in the fifth gave the Golden Eagles their first lead of the game. A two-RBI single by Danny Lynch and a double by Matthew Guidry scored the runs, but Matt Wallner struck out with the bases loaded to end the inning.
“Give (LSU pitcher Matt) Beck credit,” Berry said. “He went to the breaking ball, kind of pitched backwards there, and got Wallner, who’s been a really disciplined hitter here late.”
Southern Miss had an opportunity in the eighth with two in scoring position and one out, but a strikeout and a groundout ended the threat. LSU’s Devin Fontenot pitched the final two innings to close out the contest.
How Southern Miss got to the Regional final
Southern Miss trailed by as many as eight against the Sun Devils, but three runs in the eighth and four more in the ninth erased any frustration from earlier in the game.
The two teams combined for 29 hits, but none was bigger than Montenegro’s two-out single in the bottom of the ninth. With the tying run at third and the winning run at second, the sophomore from Guatemala poked one through the right side to complete the massive comeback.
“Seven runs in the final two innings, that’s not what you expect to get it done, but doggone it, that’s what we got,” Berry said.
Montenegro was hitting it well throughout the game, too. He finished with a 5-for-6 performance – 7-for-9 in the two games – and those two key RBI.
Arizona State pounded Southern Miss’ pitching through the first six innings, as a combined five pitchers allowed 12 runs off 13 hits. While Hunter Stanley allowed a home run in the sixth – the first he’s given up all season – he put zeros on the board in the seventh and eighth inning to give the Golden Eagles a chance.
Brant Blaylock entered in the ninth with a base runner, but he got out of the inning quickly. He was also the base running in the bottom half of the inning that tied the game.
“You spend all year with these guys, you’ve played so many games together with,” Blaylock said. “You look around and you see J.C. Keys or Storme Cooper and realize they have three more outs with these guys. Guys you’ve been through so much with. It gets a little emotional because you don’t want those guys’ career to end on a day like that. Just going in and doing it for those guys, and extending their careers for as long as we can so we can keep having some fun together.”