By: John Sullivan, Rice Athletics (firstname.lastname@example.org)
HOUSTON -- Not only did the Rice baseball team give head coach Wayne Graham his 1,100th victory at the school with a double-header sweep of visiting Western Kentucky Saturday, the Owls moved into first place in the Conference USA standings.
Now in his 25th season at the helm of the program, Graham has amassed an impressive 1,100 wins while maintaining a steady .708 Division I win percentage that is among the very best in the nation. Under his leadership Rice baseball has won 20-consecutive conference championships (including regular season or conference tournament titles) and been to NCAA Regionals in each of the last 21 seasons. His 2003 Owl team won the NCAA National Championship.
Moving the weekend games into a Saturday double-header, then winning both nail-biting affairs (as well as a sweep of the full three-game weekend series against a solid Western Kentucky squad) was just some more of the same diamond magic from the Rice head coach. WKU had scored in the top of the first inning in both games of the double-header, only to have the Blue & Gray take the lead and hold-on in the final stages for wins by the scores of 5-2 and 3-2, respectively.
Down 2-0 early in the first game Saturday, Tristan Gray singled-home a run to put runners on first and third in the bottom of the third. Graham's call for the delayed double-steal tied the game 2-2. Rice pulled in front 5-2 with a three-run sixth. It was the kind of offensive support starter Blake Fox had needed after striking out a career-high nine batters in a quality 8.0 innings of work. There was still a final frame to go I nthe top of the ninth, but sophomore stopper Glenn Otto held strong to earn a foreshadowing save.
The Hilltoppers were again quick with a run in the top of the first to start the day's second stanza, but the Owls tied it in the third as Andrew Dunlap scored on a grounder after striking a leadoff triple to right-center field. Rice took a 3-1 lead as an RBI single by Dunlap helped make up a two-run fourth. WKU battled back to pull within one, 3-2, in the fifth. The two runs were the lone scores allowed in another good outing from sophomore Ricardo Salinas. The right-hander from Houston scattered six hits in 6.1 innings while striking out five.
With the final 2.2 innings capable of changing on a single pitch, Graham went back to Otto out of the bullpen. Otto had help from his defense to get a double-play on one pitch in the seventh. He notched back-to-back strikeouts to end the eighth with two runners in scoring position, then had a 1-2-3 ninth to secure the 3-2 win. The save was Otto's second of the day and seventh of the season.
Rice improved to 24-11 overall and 12-3 in C-USA action. The Owls are a half-game in front of both Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic heading into respective games for those teams on Sunday. Rice's weekend schedule is complete. The Owls can do no worse than be tied for first place at the end of other league games on Sunday, a spot where their 1,100-win head coach would want them to be.