Ratterree comes through in ninth to save series
After dropping both games of a doubleheader in Birmingham, Ala. to the University of Alabama-Birmingham (27-25, 9-15 C-USA) on April 23, the baseball team fell two games behind Southern Miss in the Conference USA standings with just three weekends of play to go. Needing their second late-season push in as many years to get themselves in position for their 16th consecutive C-USA share of the title, the Owls headed across town to Cougar Field for a three-game set against the University of Houston (24-27, 11-10 C-USA) after a midweek win over Stephen F. Austin State University (31-20) by a score of 9-1.
The Friday night opener was a historic night for Texas Sports Hall of Famer Wayne Graham, as the Owls head coach earned his 900th career win in his 20th season at Rice. But after Graham, the story of the weekend for the Owls was the hitting tear of sophomore second baseman Michael Ratterree. After a line drive home run on Friday night, Ratterree went four for five with three RBI and three runs scored on Saturday as the Owls cruised to a 12-6 win. Junior Matthew Reckling threw six strong innings in the game, improving his record to 4-1 on the year. The Owls would complete the season sweep of the Cougars on Sunday with a 5-2 win, as Ratterree had three more hits and freshman John Simms allowed just one run over seven innings of work. Ratterree was named the most outstanding player of the Silver Glove Series, and also earned C-USA Hitter of the Week honors for the second time this season by hitting .526 with seven RBI and eight runs scored over Rice's four games. The team has now won the Silver Glove Series against Houston each year since 2001, and has won 14 straight games against the Cougars dating back to the 2009 season.
After a scoreless bottom of the seventh, sophomore first baseman and Louisiana native J.T. Chargois took a two-strike fastball on the inside corner and drove it over the fence in right field for a solo home run, his first of the season. The timely round tripper put Rice up 2-1, giving them their first lead of the season against UL and putting them six outs away from the win. Enter senior Tony Cingrani, the ace of the bullpen for Graham whose mid-90s fastball has made him one of the very best bullpen pitchers in the NCAA. After junior Daniel Gonzales- Luna threw out a runner trying to extend a single at second base to lead off the 8th, Cingrani would retire the final five batters in order to earn his eighth save of the season and clinch the 2-1 midweek victory.
Last weekend the Owls welcomed the University of Memphis (27-23, 10-11 C-USA) to Reckling Park, a team led by the nation's leading hitter, second baseman Chad Zurcher. After going down 1-0 early in the series opener, the Owls scored four runs in the bottom of the third with just one hit in the inning, a two-run double off the streaking bat of freshman Shane Hoelscher. Rice would add four more in the fourth on three hits, most notably a towering home run from junior Anthony Rendon, to go up 8-1 in the game. Hoelscher would finish the night with three RBI and Ratterree extended his hitting streak to 20 games as Rice went on to a 10-6 win, with freshman Austin Kubitza improving to 5-3 by working into the seventh inning. Conference-leading Southern Miss would rally on Friday against Houston for three runs in the ninth inning to win their series opener, keeping Rice two games back for the time being.
The Owls' six-game winning streak would come to an end on Saturday, however, when Memphis scored two runs in the top of the 10th to steal a 5-3 win and force a Sunday rubber match. Rice put together just six hits on the afternoon as Ratterree's hit streak came to an end. The team did receive good news on Saturday night though, when the Cougars defeated Southern Miss to keep the conference deficit for Rice at just two games.
Simms took the mound on Sunday afternoon for Rice and kept Memphis to just one run through the first four innings, before Rice rallied in the bottom of the fourth for four runs on RBI hits from junior Craig Manuel, redshirt junior Michael Fuda, and Lewis. But after two runs in the fifth, Memphis would take the lead in the sixth by scoring three runs on two hits and two walks. Down 6-4 heading to the bottom of the ninth, Rice would need to rally to take the series and maintain hope of winning the conference regular season title with just one weekend of play left. With two outs in the inning, freshman Keenan Cook walked after a single from Michael Fuda to put the tying run on base. Chargois stepped up to bat and roped a single up the middle to score Fuda, as Cook advanced to third on the throw. After the Tigers intentionally walked Rendon to load the bases with two outs, Ratterree came up to the plate with a chance to tie or win the game for the Owls. Maintaining his status as one of the hottest hitters in the country, Ratterree lined a single to left field on a 3-1 count, scoring Cook and Chargois and giving Rice the win in walk-off fashion. Parlayed with a 6-1 Southern Miss loss on Sunday, the three-run ninth inning puts Rice just one game back of the C-USA lead with one weekend to go.
Graham's boys head to Hattiesburg this weekend to take on Southern Miss in a winner-takes-all, three game set to determine the C-USA regular season champion. If the Owls win the series, they will clinch their 16th consecutive share of the C-USA title and increase their chances of hosting a regional in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The regional sites are awarded generally to the top 16 teams in the nation, and Rice enters the week with an RPI of 14 in the country. After the series with Southern Miss, the Owls will travel to Pearl, Miss. for the conference tournament, which begins on Wednesday, May 25. Be sure to follow the Owls on RiceOwls.com this weekend, and for their postseason play as they make a run at Omaha.
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