April 3, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
With a disgusted clap of his hands and a dejected lull in his gait, Rice sophomore Craig Manuel expressed the frustration that was emanating from the Owls' dugout when his deep fly ball died at the warning track to open the 10th inning. He was decidedly more joyous two innings later.
Manuel made his first career home run a memorable one, cranking a solo shot off Houston lefthander Taylor Hammack over the right-field wall in the bottom of the 12th to give the Owls an 8-7 victory and a Conference USA series sweep of their rivals Saturday at Reckling Park.
Manuel pushed Houston right fielder William Kankel as far back as he could jog in the 10th with a high-arcing shot that Kankel cradled in his glove while touching the wall with his left hand. When he stepped in against Hammack (1-2) for a second time, Manuel was armed with the knowledge of having witnessed how Hammack worked him previously.
"It's always good to see a guy more than once," said Manuel, who finished 1-for-4 with two runs and a walk serving as the designated hitter. "He was hiding the ball pretty well, but I didn't see anything that was too special that he could shut us down for five innings."
Hammack wasn't having much difficulty handcuffing the Owls (17-12, 4-2 C-USA) thanks to the Owls' apparent determination to script a dramatic ending. Six of the eight batters Hammack retired trudged back to the dugout following fly outs, including center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh, whose fly out to center preceded the homer from Manuel.
But in many ways the Owls made their own luck, so it was fitting that Manuel was presented with a second chance to record his first dinger.
"I never hit a ball that solid since I've been here," Manuel said. "If that didn't get out, there was no chance for me to ever hit a home run."
Momentum-swinging homers were the theme du jour. Owls third baseman Anthony Rendon drilled a grand slam the opposite way to right in the first to erase the Cougars' 2-0 lead and provide the Owls an edge they would not relinquish until Houston catcher Chris Wallace crushed a three-run homer to straightaway center field off Owls closer Tyler Duffey in the eighth. Wallace, whose solo homer in the second sliced the Owls' lead to 4-3, left no doubt with his titanic blast, clearing the batter's eye behind the wall to give Houston (12-14, 2-4) a 7-6 lead.
That advantage was short-lived. The Owls finished 2-for-13 with two outs and Owls right fielder Chad Mozingo delivered both hits. His two-out double off Cougars lefthander Ty Stuckey in the eighth scored Sultzbaugh and erased the deficit. Mozingo was 4-for-4 with two walks.
"That's not too bad, is it," Rice coach Wayne Graham asked rhetorically.
Equally impressive were the relief performances of southpaws Doug Simmons and Holt McNair, who combined to work 6 1/3 innings while allowing one unearned run on two hits and three walks. Simmons was shaky early in his appearance - he balked in the third run in the third - but settled down and coasted through the seventh inning. McNair relieved Duffey and entered to face Houston lefthanders Zak Presley and Caleb Ramsey, and he induced a pair of harmless fly balls to Sultzbaugh.
Also lost in the home run derby were the exceptional displays of defensive might produced by the Owls. Junior shortstop Rick Hague, whose defensive struggles have been well chronicled, made an incredible play to retire Wallace in the third, tracking deep in the hole behind Rendon before making a backhand stop and firing accurately to Jimmy Comerota at first. Hague finished with a clean performance and seven assists, none more dazzling than his first effort on the afternoon.
"I think he got his mind back," Rendon said of Hague. "I don't know what was wrong with him, but I think he found whatever he was looking for. He got that confidence back, and he made a lot of good plays today. That's what he's capable of; he can do that every day if he wants to."
Added Graham: "That was one of the best games I've ever seen a shortstop play. We don't have anybody that can come close to playing short that way. That was an incredible performance I thought."
Rendon, whose grand slam was his second this season, wasn't shabby at third. He made a diving, smothering stop of a grounder from Houston second baseman Travis Trial to open the seventh, and he gobbled up a sharply hit ground ball from Blake Kelso with two runners on in the 11th, stepping on the bag before firing to first for the inning-ending double play to support Boogie Anagnostou (2-2) and preserve the tie.
The Owls will carry a five-game win streak into their non-conference showdown with Dallas Baptist at 6 p.m., Tuesday night at Reckling Park.