Baseball tied for first in C-USA with Houston
With conference-leading University of Houston Cougars dropping a series at Marshall University this past weekend, the Rice University baseball team seized the opportunity to move into a tie for first in Conference USA with a series win on the road against East Carolina University.
Junior ace Austin Kubitza delivered 7 1/3 shutout innings Friday night and allowed just four hits. With the game tied at 0-0 in the ninth inning, the Owls put two in scoring position with one out after senior Christian Stringer and sophomore Ford Stainback led off with singles, followed by a sacrifice from junior Michael Aquino. Junior Keenan Cook then hit a ball to the right side, where an error by the second baseman allowed two runs to score, the first breakthrough of the game for either side. Rice added a third run from an RBI double from senior Michael Ratterree, and sophomore Zech Lemond closed the door in the ninth to give the Owls a 3-0 win in the series opener.
Head Coach Wayne Graham said the pitching was fantastic and that it was much-needed going up against an ace in East Carolina sophomore pitcher Jeff Hoffman.
"I'm extremely pleased because we got great pitching, and Hoffman was about the best we faced this year," Graham said after Friday's game. "Those zeros up there were no accident."
The Owls failed to clinch the series Saturday, dropping their first extra-inning game of the year 3-2 in 13 innings despite solid pitching from sophomore Jordan Stephens and from junior John Simms in relief.
Sunday's rubber match proved to be a close contest, a back-and-forth affair in front of a vociferous crowd in Greenville, N.C. The Pirates got out to a 5-1 lead with runs in the second and third innings, but the Owls came back to cut the lead to 7-6 after the sixth. The Owls went right back to work in the seventh, beginning with freshman Leon Byrd's leadoff walk. After a double by Stringer put the leading run on second base, Aquino delivered yet again in what is becoming a habit for the junior, hitting a double to left field to put Rice back ahead 8-7.
Spotted a one-run lead, Lemond allowed just a single hit over the final three innings, striking out three in that span to earn the win and clinch the series for Rice. Lemond, whose eight saves lead the conference and rank ninth in the country, has recorded either a save or a win in all six of Rice's C-USA victories this season.
"Well, this is the biggest game of the year for us to win, I think," Graham said after Rice clinched the road series on Sunday. "We have no problem with heart and no problem with teamwork and no problem with perseverance."
Graham said he has been proud of Lemond's pitching this year and that Lemond has been critical to winning close ballgames.
"What he has done for us this year is beyond belief," Graham said. "He's had a hand in every conference win."
The Owls, the only team in the C-USA and one of the few teams in the nation without a loss in a weekend series all season, traveled to Beaumont, Texas on Tuesday to take on 24-win Lamar University in a midweek game. Rice got off to a fantastic start, leading 8-1 through just two and a half innings.
Lamar did not back down from the early deficit. The Cardinals scored a run in the third and four more in the fourth, and what was once a comfortable lead became just an 8-6 advantage for Rice. Lamar completed the comeback with two more runs in the seventh to make it an 8-8 ballgame. Refusing to lose, Rice rallied in the ninth for a run, beginning with a leadoff double from Aquino. After a Cook fly ball allowed Aquino to move up to third, Ratterree drove a ball to right field for what proved to be the game-winning sacrifice fly, and freshman Kevin McCanna finished off 2 1/3 innings of perfect relief for his second win of the season.
Following Tuesday's 9-8 win, the Owls return home for a three-game set with the University of Central Florida, beginning 6:30 p.m. Friday. Now close to full strength, junior Shane Hoelscher returned to play Sunday after missing five weeks with a hand injury. Rice has a chance to take the outright lead in the league this weekend ahead of its marquee matchup with Houston next week.
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