April 13, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
HUNTSVILLE - This script had been written before with an unsavory conclusion, so as the same scene unfolded on Tuesday night, Rice coach Wayne Graham implored the Owls to do what others had done to them.
Graham wanted the Owls to fight. He requested that they turn each and every at-bat against Sam Houston State into a prolonged battle. He longed for them to dig deep into their reservoir of intestinal fortitude and find whatever it was that Memphis parlayed into a victory in the second game of that weekend series. He challenged the Owls to display the same toughness Tulane utilized to rally from a four-run deficit in toppling Rice last Friday. He wanted the Owls to mimic the Bearkats.
Senior Diego Seastrunk heeded the call first in the seventh inning before sophomore outfielder Jeremy Rathjen answered the bell in the eighth. By the time Seastrunk came to the plate to open the ninth, the Owls had proven to everyone at Don Sanders Stadium how resolute they were.
Seastrunk capped a dramatic rally with an opposite-field home run off the left-field foul pole in the ninth, but only after his two-out RBI single in the seventh provided the inspiration for Rathjen to deliver a two-out, two-run single in the eighth inning of the Owls' 8-7 non-conference win.
Rice (20-14) scored five runs in its final three at-bats, the first four coming with two outs. Sam Houston State (15-19) had fashioned a 7-3 lead by scoring five successive runs with two outs, but Seastrunk turned the tables with a single to right field in the seventh that scored Anthony Rendon, who doubled. One inning later, Rathjen fought back from an 0-2 count against Matt Skelton and slapped a single to center that scored Jimmy Comerota and Chad Mozingo and pulled the Owls even at 7.
"We were trying to battle," Seastrunk said. "Coach told us about midway through the game that we weren't fighting with these guys, that they were outfighting us. We took it personally, and that's what we got out of it. That AB (Rathjen's two-RBI hit) was huge. That gave us a huge lift."
Rathjen, who on Monday was named Conference USA Hitter of the Week, provided the second boost of the latter stages. Freshman righthander Jeremy Fant had faced a grand total of three batters before taking the ball with two outs in the sixth inning and the Owls trailing by four runs. He subsequently stemmed the Bearkats' tide for two critical innings, allowing three harmless singles and, better yet, no runs before turning over a tie game to Abel Gonzales with two outs in the eighth.
Why Fant, whose lone appearance came against California on March 11 at Reckling Park? He had impressed Rice pitching coach David Pierce with his diligence during bullpen sessions and, with Graham seeking a righthander to provide a modicum of stability, he took a flier on Fant.
"We felt like he could do that," Graham said of Fant. "We're hunting for pitching and he's a good arm, so we needed to look at it."
Added Fant, who struck out one batter and did not issue a walk: "I'm very happy (with the opportunity) and I did sense that it was coming. Coach has been telling me for weeks that I should be ready to pitch, and he said if I didn't get in this weekend there was a real good shot I would throw today or tomorrow (against Texas A&M Corpus Christi)."
While Fant was a pleasant surprise out of the bullpen, Gonzales (4-3) confirmed his standing as the Owls' most dependable reliever. He entered with two runners on in the eighth and retired Bearkats right fielder Chris Andreas on one pitch - a soft line drive to Michael Ratterree at second base. After Seastrunk pushed the Owls in front for the first time since the second inning, Gonzales quickly recorded the first two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Bearkats third baseman Kevin Miller chopped a single by Rendon at third, but Gonzales recovered to get Bearkats catcher Michael Hilliard to dribble into a fielder's choice.
Gonzales is tied with senior righthander Jared Rogers for the staff lead in victories, and he is fourth on the staff in innings pitched (30 1/3) despite making just one start. He might start the series finale at UCF.
"He looked so confident," Graham said. "He throws strikes, his fastball moves, he's throwing pretty hard; he's just a polished pitcher now. Thank goodness."
Added Seastrunk, who moved behind the plate to catch Gonzales in the ninth: "He's just doing the same things he's been doing all year - hitting his spots. If I had to catch anybody else (after shifting from designated hitter) I would have to have made an adjustment. He was just hitting my mitt every time. That makes it easy going out there in the ninth."
The last three outs behind the plate proved far less dramatic than the home run Seastrunk willed into staying fair. He might have exhausted whatever breath remained in his lungs blowing the baseball from afar, but the tenacity the Owls showed late made his heroic blast possible.
"We finally got some fight `em at-bats," Graham said.
Rice will host the Islanders at Reckling Park on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.