Recap by: John Sullivan, Rice Athletics (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky – By the time the rain started to come down a little harder in the later innings – hard enough to postpone the second game of an attempted Conference USA double-header between Western Kentucky and the visiting Rice baseball team – red-hot Tristan Gray had already blazed his way to a pair of home runs in the Owls’ 8-4 victory over the Hilltoppers Friday afternoon in game one.
Gray entered the weekend’s critical league series, where both teams are hungry for wins in order to make the C-USA postseason tournament, on an 8-for-13 (.615) hitting pace that included a home run and four doubles for a 1.154 slugging percentage. By his second homer of the game Friday, an inside-the-park shot off the top of the high centerfield wall at WKU’s Nick Denes Field, an eventual heavy dose of rain was almost the only way to extinguish Gray’s fiery pace.
In order to avoid the anticipated storms, the first two games of the series were rescheduled into a 2 pm Friday double-header. The weather was not a factor as Hilltoppers struck for a run in the bottom of the second inning as Rice issued four walks in the frame.
Rice came right back with four big runs in the top of the third. Gray led off by blasting a pitch to the left (but also high enough to clear) the big batter’s-eye in centerfield. He had tied the game, 1-1, but the Owls weren’t quite finished at the plate. The next two batters, Ryan Chandler and Kendal Jefferies, drew with walks and Dayne Wunderlich was faster than his textbook sacrifice bunt attempt that loaded the stations with none away. Charlie Warren punched a RBI single up the middle and Dominic DiCaprio forced in a run with a one-walk. Wunderlich dashed home on Ford Proctor’s sacrifice fly for a 4-1 lead.
Gray was hitting well, but patiently drew a two-out walk to load the bases in the fifth. Chandler followed with a single to right to score two more for a 6-1 advantage. Gray then led off the seventh by rattling a pitch off the top of the batter’s-eye and caromed back on the artificial surface and away from the pursuing WKU outfielders. He sprinted around the bases for an inside-the-park home run, his second round-tripper of the day and fourth of the season to grab a share of the team lead.
The insurance runs to make it 7-1 proved to be a welcomed addition because the Hilltoppers would not go away so quietly at home. In the bottom of the seventh, WKU rallied for three runs on four hits to cut the margin back down to three, 7-4. The Hilltoppers were looking for more with a pair of runners still on base, but junior right-hander Glenn Otto came out of the bullpen to end the threat with a swinging strikeout.
By the eighth it was fairly established rain was to be a part of the remainder of the game. Drainage on WKU’s new artificial surface was certainly up to the task, but the facility could not hold Dane Myers’ long home run blast to left to make the score 8-4. Otto then fought off a final WKU rally in the ninth, as well as the rain, for his fourth save of the season in the soggy 8-4 final.
Rice is now 14-25 on the season and improved to 5-11 in C-USA league play. WKU dropped to 12-27 overall and 4-12 in conference.
With the immediate forecasts not looking any better for the rest of Friday evening, it was officially determined that the second game of the attempted double-header would be postponed. The remaining two games are in a holding pattern due to the weather, and start times for both contests will be determined on Saturday morning at 8 am Central Time.