BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - The Rice baseball team followed an 11-4 runaway win in the first game of Friday's Conference USA road double-header at Western Kentucky with a dramatic 3-2 victory in the nightcap, Friday evening at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Ky.
With the wins Rice improved to 28-16 overall and 16-7 in C-USA league play. The Hilltoppers are now 21-19 on the year and 9-11 in conference.
The Owls are just a few win-percentage points behind Middle Tennessee (14-5 C-USA record) in the conference standings after the Blue Raiders lost a league game at Marshall Friday. Rice also vaulted a few percentage points ahead of nationally-ranked Florida Atlantic (13-6 in C-USA) after FAU lost its series opener to Old Dominion.
For as tight as the C-USA standings are after Friday night, Rice's one-run victory in game two of the twin-bill was just as tight. The Owls had to hold-off a bases-loaded WKU rally for no runs in the bottom of the seventh, strand the Hilltoppers' tying run at second base in the eighth, and avoid the team's lethal top of the batting order in the ninth for the 3-2 final.
Rice had no problem producing 11 runs earlier in the day and went right to work to get on the scoreboard in the top of the second inning of game two. Grayson Lewis dropped a one-out base hit into shallow right field, and moved into scoring position with a steal of second. He hustled home on Hunter Kopycinski's two-out single to left-center for a 1-0 lead.
The Owls were back on the attack in the fourth. Leon Byrd led off the inning with a triple to left, and Kopycinski followed with a double to drive him home. Kopycinski advanced to third on a Ryan Chandler's sacrifice bunt, and scored on an RBI single by Ford Stainback that made it 3-0.
The Blue & Gray didn't seem to have trouble getting baserunners with a final total of 14 hits and two walks. Stranding 11 men on base over the course of the night, however, helped serve as a hard reminder that WKU's talented squad (which stormed past No. 3 ranked Louisville on Wednesday) would not go away so quietly at home. Even with Rice junior starting pitcher Kevin McCanna looking as sharp as he as looked all season, posting a career-high 11 strikeouts over 7.0 innings while scattering just five hits, the 3-0 lead was uncomfortably close.
In the sixth, an Owl fielding error led extended WKU's turn at bat and ended up leading to an unearned run and a 3-1 score. In the seventh, McCanna appeared to be in some trouble loading the bases on pair of hits and a walk, but he got his career-best 11th strikeout and then help from his teammates with an electric 4-6-3 double play where pivot man Leon Byrd had to make an accurate, rocket throw after spinning 360 degrees as he fielded the ball.
To start the eighth McCanna was relieved by Austin Orewiler, who was touched for a run on a pair of hits that made the score 3-2. Orewiler battled back with a second strikeout of his own to end the threat. He then struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth on ten pitches to avoid the top of the Topper's order and preserve the 3-2 final. Orewiler had five Ks in 2.0 innings, combining with McCanna for a total of 16 strikeouts in the game.
Staff strikeouts were among the few similarities for the day's two contrasting games. In game one, WKU quickly struck for a run in the bottom of the first inning. Anderson Miller led off with a single to right-center and Danny Hudzina doubled to left to put runners on second and third. Miller scored on an RBI ground out by Ryan Church for the 1-0 advantage.
Rice came right back with a pair of runs in the top of the second. Charlie Warren stroked a two-out single up the middle and Grayson Lewis coaxed a walk. Both runners advanced on a costly wild pitch. Byrd followed with a single to left that plated both men for a 2-1 Rice lead.
The Owls extended the margin to 7-1 in the top of the fifth on just two hits. The Blue & Gray drew three walks (with one being intentional) to bat around on the way to five runs. Rice also took advantage of three wild pitches in the frame.
The Hilltoppers got two runs back in the bottom of the fifth. An Owl fielding error extended WKU's life at the plate and ended up making both scores unearned off starter Jordan Stephens. The junior right-hander worked 5.0 innings, allowing one earned run on five hits and one walk while striking out seven. He was relieved by Matt Ditman for 3.0 innings and Glenn Otto for 1.0. The staff finished the game with eleven strikeouts.
Rice scored one in the seventh, and then three more in the ninth to reach eleven runs in the contest. Chandler and Warren both finished the game with two hits. Four Owls scored at least twice while three had two RBI.
There is still one game to play in the weekend series. The finale is Sunday, April 26, at 12 noon. The contest is scheduled for a live television broadcast on the American Sports Network (ASN). After the weekend series, Rice University enters its final exams period where the team will be off from April 27 to May 5.