On an otherwise clear night, it Storm-ed on LSU in Hattiesburg

Published 12:44 pm Monday, June 6, 2022

Rick Cleveland writes about the performance of Southern Miss pitcher Justin Storm on Sunday night against LSU.
Justin Storm’s father John is a Brookhaven native and the street Storm Avenue in Brookhaven was derived from the family name.

Southern Miss coach Scott Berry made one point perfectly clear Friday night after LSU rallied from four runs behind to send the Golden Eagles into the losers bracket of the Hattiesburg Regional.

“To achieve the task we are faced with now, we are going to have to call on players to do things they haven’t been asked to do before,” Berry said.

Justin Storm must have been listening.

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With the Southern Miss season hanging in the balance, the seldom used Storm entered the game in the fifth inning and never left it while leading his team to an 8-4 victory. He pitched five innings of sensational baseball, shutting down the high-powered LSU Tigers as if he had been in similar situations often in the past.

Actually, he never has. He’s never thrown 85 pitches in a game either. Storm’s longest previous stint this season was 1.2 innings. But he shut out the Tigers, allowing only two hits while striking out seven and walking only one. The 6-foot, 7-inch former Madison Central basketball and baseball player pitched the game of his life. That’s all.

“A star was born tonight,” Berry said. “I’ve seen players step up in these kinds of situations before, as Justin did tonight. He was so calm, so in control. I really believe we saw a star born tonight.”

It was nothing fancy. Storm spotted a 90-91 mile per hour fastball, using both sides of the plate, high and low, and kept the Tigers off balance with an effective slider. He threw strikes.

Storm said if he has ever thrown 85 pitches in a game — from Little League until now — he doesn’t remember it.

He will remember these 85 pitches for a long, long time, no matter what happens when the Tigers and Golden Eagles square off in the Hattiesburg Regional’s deciding game at 3 p.m. on Monday. It will be 46-17 Southern Miss going against 40-21 LSU for the third time in three days. Southern Miss will be playing its third game in a 27-hour span, having had to defeat feisty Kennesaw State 4-3 in 10 innings earlier Saturday.

Hunter Riggins was the pitching hero in that one, allowing only one earned run and seven hits over nine innings. Riggins was fantastic — but then Southern Miss fans have to come to expect that from him, just as Delta State fans had before he graduated and transferred to USM to play his final season of college eligibility.

Riggins covered the nine innings in temperatures that soared well over 100 degrees on the artificial playing surface. He threw 117 pitches. Yes, he said, he had considered the fact that after all those 36 pitching victories in five seasons of college baseball (including the Covid season), Sunday night mark his last game as a college pitcher.

“I thought about it and what I thought is that I am not ready to transfer to the couch,” Riggins said. “I want to play some more baseball.”

Riggins won’t be available for the Eagles today. Neither will Hurston Waldrep, who was extended to 117 pitches against LSU on Saturday night. Storm surely can’t throw again on such short rest, but one would think that all other Southern Miss pitchers could be called  for an inning or three on Monday.

LSU is in the same boat. Said LSU coach Jay Johnson, “That’s why we carry 13 pitchers on a 27-man roster. We have plenty of options.”

Johnson seemed confident. “We’ve answered the bell after failure before,” he said. “I feel as good as any coach can given our situation.”

LSU broke on top 2-0 in the bottom of the first inning on Cade Doughty’s two-run home run off the new Southern Miss scoreboard in left center field. Southern Miss answered with two runs of its own in the second inning.

LSU fired right back with two more in the top of the third, but then Southern Miss responded with two more in the third to tie it at 4.

“I knew when we answered them after they went up 2-0 and 4-2 that we were locked in and ready to play,” Berry said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our resilience.”

It was as if the LSU and Southern Miss teams were swapping punches on the field, while the fans tried to drown one another out in the stands. Again, it was a football-like crowd atmosphere. Every time Tiger fans would start their L-S-U chant, Southern Miss’s much larger home crowd would drown them out with chants of U-S-M.

LSU chants became fewer when Storm entered the the game with one Tiger on base and nobody out in the fifth and the score still tied at 4. The big southpaw kept LSU at four runs for five straight innings, while Southern Miss scored three in the the sixth and then another in eighth on Carson Paetow’s line drive home run into the Right Field Roost, which left the ballpark in a seeming nanosecond.

Southern Miss pitching coach Christian Ostrander kept asking Storm how he felt. He kept saying he felt fine. Ostrander and Berry kept sending Storm back out and he kept throwing strikes.

How did he feel afterward?

“I’m exhausted,” Storm replied.

Much later came the news that top-seed Miami had been eliminated from the Coral Gables Regional, meaning that Southern Miss will host the Super Regional if the Eagles can knock off LSU for a second straight time.

For the Golden Eagles to do it, someone likely will have to pull off another Justin Storm — if that’s even possible.