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Southern Miss rallies by East Carolina

HATTIESBURG — Wednesday night, Southern Miss came out red hotand made quick work of archrival Tulane in the opening round of the2009 Conference USA Baseball Tournament.

Thursday night against regular-season champion East Carolina,the Golden Eagles saved their best for last.

Shut out through the first six innings, freshman shortstop B.A.Vollmuth’s two-out, two-run home run tied the score in the bottomthe seventh inning and Southern Miss tacked on three more runs inthe eighth on designated hitter Corey Steven’s sacrifice fly andfirst baseman Joey Archer’s two-run single to dramatically snatch a5-2 victory over the top-seeded Pirates.

USM senior right-hander JR Ballinger turned in a career effort,holding the hard-swinging Pirates to two runs — one earned — onseven hits in eight innings, and after Colin Cargill picked up hisninth save, it left the host Golden Eagles as the lone unbeaten ontheir side of the tournament bracket.

It was the first time the Golden Eagles (34-22) had ever knockedoff the No. 1 seed in a C-USA tournament, and the win left a vastpart of the 2,431 dancing in the aisles at Pete Taylor Park.

“JR pitched tremendous and Vollmuth had the big home run,” USMcoach Corky Palmer said. “The atmosphere here at the `Pete,’ it’sbringing back the old days. We’re rising to the occasion with ourenthusiasm.

“We beat a fine club, but we have to keep playing. Hopefully, wecan get a win (Friday).”

In other games yesterday, Houston beat Marshall 4-1, Tulaneknocked off Central Florida 7-3 and Rice whipped UAB 8-1.

After C-USA officials revised the tournament schedule because ofweather concerns this weekend, ECU (42-16) is expected to play at12:30 p.m. Friday in an elimination game against fourth-seededTulane (33-24). Southern Miss beat the Green Wave 15-2 inWednesday’s opening round.

The winner of that game is scheduled to meet the Golden Eaglesat 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Should the black and gold win Friday, it would put the GoldenEagles in Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game, and if Southern Missis to extend its streak of six consecutive NCAA regionalappearances, it has to win the league’s automatic bid into theNCAAs by winning the tournament crown.

Some have suggested that the Golden Eagles are on a mission tosend out Palmer on a high note. The veteran coach announced onApril 30 that he was retiring at the end of the season after 12years.

Palmer said any quest should not be about him.

“I told them a long time ago, this is not about me,” Palmersaid. “This about (seniors) Bo Davis, James and Mike Ewing, BrianDozier. It’s about them. It’s not about me. They want to keep doingit, and we’ve got a lot of work left to do. Let’s see if we can getit done.”

Southern Miss got it done Thursday against a pitcher who had wonhis last seven starts and came into the game undefeated, includinga regular-season win over the Golden Eagles.

ECU right-hander Seth Maness (9-1) had kept the Golden Eagles incheck through the first six innings, allowing only one baseruner toreach scoring position in that stretch. At one point spanning thethird through the seventh innings, Maness had retired 12 of 13batters.

But Ballinger (5-3), who had been a reliever most of his careerbefore earning a starting role this season, was nearly as tough onan ECU club that owned the league’s best offensive numbers.

“Ballinger kept us in the game,” Palmer said. “In collegebaseball, nine innings is a long time to cover. He gave us achance, and as long as he kept us in there, it gave us achance.

“I told him when I took him out, `Hey buddy, maybe we can letyou pitch again next week.'”

ECU took a 2-0 lead, with first baseman Brandon Hendersondriving in both runs. Henderson’s grounder scored center fielderTrent Whitehead from third in the first inning, and his double inthe third inning brought in second baseman Ryan Wood.

But with two outs in the seventh inning, Maness walked rightfielder Michael Ewing and Vollmuth, who came into the eveninghitting .226, drove his third home run of the season over theright-field fence to tie the score.

“It was a fastball that he left a little bit up,” said Vollmuth,who has moved into the starting lineup after Dozier went down forthe season after breaking his collarbone on April 14.

In the eighth, James Ewing ripped a one-out double to the wallin center and moved to third on Davis’ infield single. Anintentional walk to left fielder Kameron Brunty loaded the bases,and Seth Simmons replaced Maness to pitch to Stevens.

“It’s exciting,” said Stevens, who ripped a full-count, one-outfly to the right-field corner to score Ewing with the go-ahead run.”I wasn’t nervous. I put the nervousness on the pitcher He got kindof rattled, couldn’t find the zone, and I knew he was going to haveto come in there.

“If it was close, I was going to put the barrel on it, and tryand get it in the outfield.”

Archer followed with a flare to right that added the final tworuns.

“You have to tip your hat to Southern Miss,” ECU coach BillyGodwin said. “It was two well-pitched games. We just came upshort.”