GREENVILLE, N.C. -- The eighth-ranked Rice baseball team rallied from an early five-run deficit to post a dramatic 9-6 Conference USA win over 22nd-ranked East Carolina in the second of a three-game weekend league series Saturday afternoon in Greenville, NC. With the victory the Owls clinched the C-USA series following a 4-0 shutout win on Friday night.
East Carolina took advantage of Rice walks to jump on the scoreboard for four early runs. The Owls walked three of the first five Pirate batters in the bottom of the first inning. ECU left fielder Brandon Henderson then knocked a two-out base hit to left field for a 2-0 lead.
In the bottom of the second ECU's Ryan Wood and Harrison Eldridge drew back-to-back one-out walks to put men on first and second. Dale Mollenhauer followed with an RBI single to right field that allowed Eldridge to take third. He scored on a ground-out down the first base side that stretched the margin to 4-0. The Owls issued six walks in the first two innings and four of those runners came around to score.
Henderson was hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the third. He advanced to second on a ground out and scored on a base hit to left by Wood. An ECU team that entered the contest with a 20-4 home record was in front 5-0 after three innings.
Rice got a run back in the fourth. Leftfielder Jordan Dodson led off with a base hit to left and he moved into scoring position with a walk to Joe Savery. Designated hitter Aaron Luna ripped a base hit into center to score Dodson to make it a 5-1 contest.
The Owls exploded for five runs in the fifth. J.P. Padron started the rally by reaching on an ECU fielding error. Jimmy Comerota walked and Tyler Henley singled to load the bases. Chad Lembeck drove in Padron with an infield single to the left side and Dodson brought Comerota home with a ground out that made the score 5-3. Henley scored on a wild pitch and Lembeck advanced to third. Savery drew a walk that put men on the corners and Luna followed by driving a double to the gap in left-center. Both runners scored and put the Blue & Gray in front 6-5.
Comerota led off the sixth with a single and Jared Gayhart walked to put men on first and second with one away. The Owls managed to load the bases by Dodson reaching on a fielder's choice where all the runners were safe. Comerota and Gayhart scored on a double by Savery and Rice stretched the margin to 8-5.
East Carolina responded with a run on one hit in the sixth, but a dramatic defensive play may have saved the day by preventing three more possible runs. Wood led off with a base hit and he reached third after a pair of walks. He scored on Tousley's sacrifice fly that cut the lead to two, 8-6. There were two outs and still two men on base when catcher Corey Kemp blasted a pitch deep into left field. Dodson sprinted back and made a leaping catch at the wall that robbed Kemp of a would-be three-run homer and ended the inning.
The Owls scored one final insurance run in the top of the ninth for a 9-6 final. Rice freshman pitcher Mike Ojala entered the game in the third inning and earned the win on the mound by working a career-long 2.1 innings. The left-hander from Kingwood High School scattered two hits and struck out one. Junior reliever Bobby Bramhall was sensational to earn his fourth save of the season after firing four shutout innings. Bramhall did not allow any hits and he struck out six.
Rice won its sixth game in a row to improve to 25-10 on the season and 7-1 in Conference USA action. East Carolina is now 21-11 overall and 4-4 against the league. The three-game weekend series concludes on Sunday. Start time is set for 10 am (Central time) at Clark-LeClair Stadium on the ECU campus.