April 25, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
All the elements of sublime offensive execution culminated for Rice on Sunday at Reckling Park, and considering how frequently the Owls were victimized by poor timing earlier this season, no one could have taken umbrage with the fortuitous orchestration of this wondrous display.
Excelling in areas great and small, the Owls completed a sweep of No. 21 East Carolina with an 11-9 victory that extended their lead over the Pirates to 3 ½ games in the race for the top seed in Conference USA.
The Owls (26-16, 11-4 C-USA) bashed three home runs and executed two sacrifice flies. Senior first baseman Jimmy Comerota delivered a bases-clearing double in the fourth inning that erased a four-run deficit, but he later scored the go-ahead run after Michael Ratterree advanced him to third base with a groundout to the right side of the infield and Michael Fuda, who homered in the seventh and eighth, added the first of the aforementioned sac flies. The Owls stranded just one base runner.
On an afternoon where the wind was whipping out to left field and their pitching, stout all weekend, wobbled throughout, the Owls' stellar offensive production was as welcome as much as it was sorely needed.
"Jimmy Comerota needs a lot of credit because he's been giving us everything we needed all the time," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "Other guys stepped up today obviously, but Jimmy has been a leader with the bat and getting the job done. That double where he cleaned the bases was huge."
Huge might be too modest a description, especially considering how dismissively East Carolina (24-17, 6-6) put the Owls into the ropes a half-inning earlier. The Pirates had already chased Rice starter Jared Rogers with back-to-back two-out singles in the third while holding a 2-1 lead. Junior righthander Boogie Anagnostou relieved Rogers and escaped further damage that inning, but he surrendered a double to Cameron Freeman and walked Trent Whitehead prior to facing Corey Thompson. That confrontation went to Thompson, who crushed a three-run home run to straightaway center to extend the Pirates' lead to 5-1.
East Carolina starter Kevin Brandt (3-5) appeared to have regained his footing after surrendering an opposite-field, run-scoring single to Jeremy Rathjen in the bottom of the first. He faced the minimum in the second and third before the Owls went into attack mode in the fourth.
Rick Hague, back at shortstop after spending Friday and Saturday as the designated hitter, singled to center. Rathjen singled through the left side. Third baseman Anthony Rendon completed the spray chart with an opposite-field single to right that scored Hague. Sensing an opportunity to pounce after Diego Seastrunk worked a walk, Comerota roped the first pitch from Brandt into the left-center gap, scoring Rathjen, Rendon and the hustling Seastrunk to fashion a 5-all deadlock with no outs.
"It's awesome to see what he's been able to do," Owls right fielder Chad Mozingo said of Comerota, who was 1-for-4. "It's hard to believe your own eyes seeing him just square up every single ball. He's done some great things, and we couldn't have won as many games without him."
Comerota closed March batting .257, and his averaged dropped 10 points with an 0-for-3 effort against Houston on April 1. He has raised his average 101 points over the 15 games since, recording eight multi-hit games despite being inserted in multiple spots in the batting order.
His at-bat against Brandt, who exited following the Comerota double, exemplified the Owls' tenacity of late, primarily in clutch situations.
"There's a much more relentless attitude on the team," Graham said. "That's a good word for it and that's what you've got to be is relentless. The teams that get to Omaha and win in Omaha are that way."
Said Mozingo: "Coach called us together and said, `We can make it rain with hits, guys. We can make it rain with hits and get this guy out quick.' He tried to stay positive, and it worked. We made it rain with hits immediately."
The Owls added what they assumed was gratuitous precipitation when Fuda slugged a two-run home run off Shawn Armstrong in the seventh and Rathjen added a solo shot off Jake Harris four at-bats later. Before Rathjen smacked his ninth home run on the season, all nine members of the Rice batting order had scored exactly one run. Rathjen and Fuda, whose solo home run in the eighth bumped the lead to 11-5, were the only Owls to score twice and joined Comerota with multi-RBI games.
"Slowly everyone has been incorporated into the offense," Fuda said. "It makes us really hard to stop when all nine of us are getting on base."
The Owls are 12-4 in April, and their reward for methodically grinding their way to the top of the league standings is some rest in advance of their next game on May 5 against Texas Southern at Reckling Park. Over the next nine days the Owls can reflect on their bumpy ride thus far and recharge their batteries for what they hope is a strong finishing kick.
"This was a huge series for us," Fuda said. "After our slow start we've been slowly getting better and better, and knew we had to come out and take three from these guys to be in good position for the rest of the year."