April 10, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
NEW ORLEANS - Rice coach Wayne Graham was making his way to the team bus before realizing that his input was requested following the Owls' stressful 11-8 win over Tulane at Turchin Stadium on Saturday.
After his progress was halted, Graham spun around, caught sight of an aluminum staircase nearby, and plopped down. This interview would be conducted with Graham in a seated position, and no one could blame him if fatigue, both physical and mental, clutched Graham that moment.
Senior righthander Mike Ojala (2-0) turned a 10-1 lead over to his bullpen only to watch helplessly as Tulane (21-11, 5-3 Conference USA) chipped away over its final four at-bats. By the time junior lefthander Abel Gonzales entered with one out in the ninth inning, he twice faced batters representing the tying run before retiring right fielder Brandon Boudreaux on a called third strike to seal the victory and set the stage for the Owls (18-14, 5-3) to claim their first road series win on Sunday.
"We had some guys do some good work with the bat, and we played an errorless game," Graham said. "We scored a lot of runs (but) some people we need to be able to count on we're horribly disappointed in."
In what proved to be a tale of two games, the Owls performed brilliantly through their sixth innings. Diego Seastrunk, who skewered his defensive effort in the series opener, recorded three singles and four RBIs through his opening four at-bats. His two-run single in the first gave Rice its first inning scoring more than one run since the second frame of the series finale against Houston last week. Seastrunk, serving as the designated hitter, added RBI singles in the third and sixth, the latter as part of a three-run frame that increased the Owls' lead to 10-1.
The exceptional offensive execution extended beyond Seastrunk. Left fielder Jeremy Rathjen reached and scored in each of his first four plate appearances, including a three-run home run off Tulane starter Robby Broach for a 7-0 lead in the fourth. Broach had already surrendered eight hits prior to facing Rathjen for a third time, and Rathjen was 2-for-2 against Broach before stepping in with Jimmy Comerota and Chad Mozingo on base. Despite those facts, and that Ryan Doiron had been warming in the Tulane bullpen for quite a while, Broach was allowed to face Rathjen, who promptly scorched 1-0 pitch out to left-center field.
"I wasn't really thinking about (the pitcher). I was just trying to see who was out there and hit them," said Rathjen, who was 3-for-5 with three RBIs. "I'm glad they left (Broach) out there. He was getting a little tired."
Mozingo finished 4-for-5 with two runs and two stolen bases atop the order while Comerota was 3-for-4 with two runs batting ninth, and by the time Ojala wrapped up his longest outing since his return from midsummer Tommy John surgery, the offensive explosion seemed gratuitous. But Tulane scored five runs in the sixth, two on bases-loaded walks, before closer Tyler Duffey snuffed the rally and pitched into the ninth, when Gonzales ably closed the door on the rallying Green Wave.
The late dramatics nearly spoiled what was a landmark outing for Ojala. Graham had carefully extended Ojala with each appearance, and aimed to make his third start last at least four innings. Ojala exceeded those expectations, thanks in large part to a six-pitch third inning. Ojala did allow an RBI single to Tulane shortstop Garrett Cannizaro in the fourth, but in the fifth he retired Brian Barry and Boudreaux on one pitch each to exit the game one pitch shy of his predetermined count of 60 pitches.
As Rice moves forward in attempting to establish a set weekend rotation and a reliable bullpen, the knowledge that Ojala is increasingly able to deliver such stellar performances only enhances that first goal.
"It was great because I haven't felt that in a long, long time - not since last year," Ojala said of finishing the fifth. "It feels good to come out of a game, be able to take a deep breath and say, `All right, you did your job.'"
Said Graham: "That's the biggest thing of all because if we can straighten out a little bit, that puts us in play having a quality starter like that."
The Owls are locked in a four-way tie atop the C-USA standings, and a victory over Tulane on Sunday would secure at least a slice of first place.