Malone, UTSA hold off Southern Miss in the ninth inning

The championship-hungry UTSA Roadrunners took another step toward the top of the Conference USA standings Friday night with an 8-7 victory over the 11th-ranked Southern Miss Golden Eagles.

With the potential tying run at second base, drama unfolded in the bottom of the ninth inning. UTSA ace righthander Luke Malone was on the mound, trying to protect the one-run lead.

Southern Miss’ Danny Lynch opened the frame with a bloop double to left field.

The hit was a looping fly ball that dropped on the foul line, just out of the reach of two UTSA defenders — third baseman Austin Ochoa and left fielder Ian Bailey.

Brady Faust entered the game as a pinch runner at that point, but, ultimately, he never moved off second base after Malone retired the next three batters in order.

First, he struck out Will McGillis. On the third strike, UTSA catcher Sammy Diaz retrieved a ball on the ground and threw to first base to retire McGillis.

Next, Malone got Carson Paetow on a fly ball to center. It was a big moment for the Roadrunners, because Paetow had homered earlier and had knocked in four runs.

Finally, Malone ended the game when Rodrigo Montenegro sliced a liner to left.

If it had carried down the line for a hit, it likely would have scored the runner from second easily and would have put Montenegro into position as the potential game-winner.

Bailey, however, had other ideas. The UTSA outfielder was in position to glove it, allowing the Roadrunners to clinch the first game of a three-game series. It also pulled UTSA to within one game of first place in the C-USA.

Southern Miss leads the race by one game over second place UTSA, with two to play in the series at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, one on Saturday and another Sunday. Both teams have five games remaining in the regular season.

The Roadrunners are the hottest team in the C-USA, having won 20 of their last 26 games overall.

On offense, UTSA rocked Southern Miss pitching for a dozen hits. The Roadrunners had a few notable performances with the bats, including Diaz, who contributed three hits and two RBIs. Flores also had three hits, and he also had an RBI to cap UTSA’s six-run, sixth inning.

As for the pitching, the back end of the Roadrunners’ bullpen stood out. In the eighth inning, Ryan Beaird entered the game with one out and runners at second and third.

The freshman from Reagan High School promptly walked a batter to load the bases. But from there, Beaird got extremely tough and fanned Christopher Sargent and Slade Wilks to put out the fire.

Malone, a UTSA starter, closed the game by holding off the Golden Eagles in the last inning. By using Malone, the Roadrunners raised some questions. Namely, will Malone get a start in the series?

Other questions have come up, as well. Namely, can UTSA win the regular-season title? If so, it would be the first time for the Roadrunners to win the C-USA regular-season crown since they started play in the league in 2014.

Records

UTSA 33-16, 17-8
Southern Miss 36-14, 18-7

C-USA leaders

Southern Miss 18-7
UTSA 17-8
Louisiana Tech 16-9
Florida Atlantic 15-10
Charlotte 15-10
Middle Tennessee 15-10
Old Dominion 14-11
UAB 11-14

Five to play in the regular season. Top eight teams in the 12-team league make the conference tournament.

Coming up

Saturday — UTSA at Southern Miss, 2 p.m.
Sunday — UTSA at Southern Miss, 11 a.m.
May 19 — UAB at UTSA, 6 p.m.
May 20 — UAB at UTSA, 6 p.m.
May 21 — UAB at UTSA, noon

Notable

With the win, UTSA tied the school record for most C-USA victories in a season with 17. Previously, the team’s best effort in the conference came in 2015 when it produced a 17-13 record. UTSA played its first season in the C-USA in 2014.

UTSA’s chances of making the 64-team NCAA tournament are also in discussion. They could make in one of two ways — as an automatic qualifier from the C-USA as the conference’s tournament champion, or, possibly, as an at-large entry.

Going into the series in Hattiesburg this week, they were 59th in the NCAA’s ratings percentage index.

Top-of-the-line, non-conference victories were notched by the Roadrunners against Stanford (No. 21 RPI), TCU (34) and Texas State (37). And now, they have another good one against Southern Miss (26) as their best win within the conference.

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