HOUSTON - The Rice veteran pitching tandem of Jordan Stephens and Matt Ditman combined on a three-hit shutout with 11 total strikeouts on the way to a 10-0 game-shortened Conference USA victory over visiting league foe Middle Tennessee in the finale of the weekend series Sunday afternoon at Reckling Park.
With the win Rice won the three-game series two games to one and improved to 22-12 on the season. The Owls have most wins in C-USA league play with an 11-4 record, and are just percentage points from the top spot in the conference standings. Middle Tennessee is now 17-13 overall and 9-3 in conference.
Umpires ended Sunday's game in the bottom of the eighth inning before Middle Tennessee's chance to bat in the ninth. As per the C-USA rule for the final game of a league series, the game is called when a team (in this case Rice) stretched its lead to double digits after the seventh inning.
Rice tallied a total of seven runs on the scoreboard after the first two innings. In the bottom of the first, Ford Stainback singled and John Clay Reeves was hit by a pitch with two away before Charlie Warren doubled-in the first run of the game. Connor Teykl followed with a single through the right side to plate two more for a 3-0 lead.
The Owls then sent eight to the plate in a four-run second. Tristan Gray lined a leadoff single, Hunter Kopycinski was hit by a pitch and Ryan Chandler drew a walk to load the bases with none away. Stainback singled-home the first run and Leon Byrd followed suit with an RBI hit for a 5-0 lead. Chandler scored easily on a ground out, and Warren drove in a run with a perfectly placed bunt-base hit to the right side that stretched the margin to 7-0.
For as strong and comfortable as the Rice offense was in building a seven-run lead after just two innings, redshirt junior starter Jordan Stephens mirrored the same look from the pitcher's mound. The right-hander from Alvin, Texas, posted his best outing of the season, while slowly working his way back to form after being sidelined most of last year. Stephens struck out the side in the top of the third on the way to retiring nine in a row during one stretch. He went on to work a season-long 6.0 innings and register a season-high eight strikeouts without issuing any walks.
Fellow right-hander Matt Ditman pitched the final two hitless frames to keep the first place Middle Tennessee off the scoreboard. The Blue Raiders had three total hits off the Stephens and Ditman duo, and only two men managed to reach second base (in the first and fifth innings). Ditman could have possibly been on his way to a three-inning save, but he did not need to come out for the ninth.
In the bottom of the eighth, Stainback lined a two-out double to the wall in left-center for his third hit of the day. He trotted to third base on a wild pitch and Byrd walked to put runners at the corners. Reeves laced a double down the left field line that drove in a run, and now put two in scoring position. Warren followed with a single to center for his third hit of the day to score both runners and make the score final, 10-0.
Rice finished with 13 hits in the game. Warren finished his 3-for-5 day with a career-high four RBI. Stainback was 3-for-5 with three runs scored.
The Owls next undertake a rugged four-game road swing starting on April 7. Rice plays at longtime rival and national power Texas A&M on Tuesday night. The Blue & Gray then return to the C-USA slate for a three-game weekend series at UAB on April 10-12.