Marshall rallied with two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning off the soft liner of freshman first baseman Victor Gomez to beat Southern Miss 5-3 in the lower bracket play-in game to get to the Championship contest of the Conference USA Tournament. MU last played in a tournament championship in legendary Marshall head coach Jack Cook's last year as the MU coach in 1989, when the Herd fell to Western Carolina in the Southern Conference. Marshall, since Wednesday, has beaten Tulane 10-5 and then lost to Southern Miss on Friday, 5-3 (after Thursday was rained out after the morning game), and those were the first wins in a conference tournament since the 1995 Herd was 1-2 in head coach Howard McCann's final year. Now, the Herd had two win two games on Saturday just to get to Sunday, and did just that.
In the first elimination game, senior left fielder Jeff Rowley scored on a wild pitch to beat the Green Wave in the bottom of the ninth, 8-7, in the 10 a.m. (All times Eastern) game that went four and one-half hours. Marshall came back at 5 p.m. and turned the tables on Southern Miss with a 6-3 win. Due to the rain delay, Marshall and Southern got back together on Sunday morning with the tournament championship game on line and Gomez knocked in the runs to win the game 5-3, as the Herd came from behind. Sophomore Dan Straily (a transfer from Western Oregon University), was one of three Herd regular season weekend starters who pitched Sunday morning, picked up the win but MU got great effort from both other starters in junior Steve Blevins and senior Andrew Blain.
Marshall's pitching has been very good and, with Straily throwing two innings in the win, he will start the championship game against Houston. The Cougars also came out of the loser's bracket by beating the surprising No. 8 seed, UAB, by 10-5 at 1 p.m. Saturday, then again getting the win, 3-1, in the late night game Saturday. UAB opened the tournament by becoming only the second-ever No. 8 seed to knock off No. 1, as the Blazers topped Rice, and the Owls were the first team eliminated from the 2008 tourney. UAB then beat UH before the Cougars won two from the Blazers, and Houston is the four-seed while Marshall is the six-seed, and the Cougars swept the Herd in Houston the weekend before the C-USA Tournament started.
Not only has the pitching been good, but the base running and hitting have been extraordinary for the Herd. Marshall has smashed the tournament stolen base record of 12 by stealing 19-of-20 bases heading into the championship. Adam Yeager, who had two more steals today to add to his MU single-season mark, is 9-of-10 on stolen bases and the only out anyone has recorded on a Marshall steal attempt was a bang-bang play on an attempted steal by Yeager at home in game one when he set a single-game MU and C-USA record of five steals on six attempts. He has scored nine runs and is hitting .500 for the tournament after leading MU by hitting .370 versus C-USA opponents and seems to be sending a message to those who left him off the all-conference team despite leading the league in steals.
Going into the championship, Marshall is hitting .299 for the tournament and hit .300 for the regular season. Left fielder Nate Lape and third baseman Brandon Casamassima both have three home runs in the tournament, tying the record for home runs in a tourney. Lape is leading the tournament with 10 runs batted in, and has raised his average to nearly .400 for the season despite a number of walks. The Herd has moved up to an all-time high in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), coming in Sunday morning at No. 73 (with a strength of schedule of of an all-time high 43rd in the nation in the conference rated fifth best in the national RPI) according to one of the leaders in covering college baseball WarrenNolan.com on the web.
In the win on Sunday morning, the Herd trailed 3-2 going to the bottom of the eighth. A two-run eighth inning single on a 1-2 pitch by Gomez, who was second team All-C-USA and also on the All-Frosh team, proved to be the game winner. To start the inning, DH Kurt Lipton (who returned from a month out with injury) drew a lead-off walk and, after Matt Helm came in to pinch run, Helm stole second and the scored on an RBI single by catcher Tommy Johnson to tie the game at 3-3. Blake Sanders entered to run for Johnson, and to move to second base for defensive purposes. Johnson has caught every inning but one of the first five games, and will start the title game behind the dish.
After USM reliever Collin Cargill issued a strikeout to freshman Ben Jurivicius, who has made some tremendous defensive plays in the tournament in right field, the Golden Eagles brought in Wade Weathers instead of closer Tyler Conn, who leads all of C-USA with 17 saves. Weathers then immediately muffed a soft bouncer off the bat of Yeager for an error. A fly out in the next at bat by second baseman Josh Valle sent Sanders to third with the go-ahead run with runners on the corners and two outs. A passed ball sent Yeager to second to give the Herd two in scoring position and set up an intentional walk to Lape which loaded the bases. The two-out, two-run soft single to center field by Gomez gave the Herd a 5-3 lead. Gomez was ran for, moving Valle to first base for the ninth inning. It was Gomez's 46th and 47th RBI of the year, second on the Herd to Lape.
With the win Marshall, who extended its single-season wins mark with the 30 wins for the season against 29 losses and one tie, could clinch its first NCAA Regional appearance since the 1978 season as a member of the Southern Conference. That team, along with the 2004 Herd (27-27), won 27 games and nearly made the NCAA College World Series. Southern Miss falls to 40-20 and is eliminated from C-USA Tournament play, although the Golden Eagles may still receive an at-large bid to the regionals, as will Marshall victim Tulane as well as Rice.
Straily entered in relief in the eighth inning and hurled two fantastic innings, not allowing a hit and fanning one batter. For his effort, he picked up his fifth win of the season to improve to 5-4 on the season. Cargill suffered the loss for the Golden Eagles. Blain entered in relief of Blevins in the top of the seventh as Blevins pitched six strong innings, allowing three runs on six hits and striking out five opposing batters after throwing a complete game on Wednesday. Blain forced a pair of ground outs before giving up a double and a walk, but got out of the inning unscathed as another ground out ended the frame before giving way to Straily, who picked up his first win of the tournament with two innings of one-hit baseball. Blevins, freshman Arik Sikula and freshman Ryan Kiel have also picked up wins, and Sikula has one save to set a single-season MU record of eight in 2008.
Listen to Marshall-Houston in the C-USA Championship Game on ESPN 930-AM, with Brandon Parro and the "Voice of the Herd," Steve Cotton at 2 p.m. Sunday. You can watch a tape-delayed broadcast of the title clash on CBS College Sports Network (formerly CSTV), channel 174 on Comcast Cable in Huntington. Pod casts are available for other tournament games at www.wrvc.am on the web.