Recap by: John Sullivan, Rice Athletics (email@example.com)
HOUSTON – The Rice baseball team halted a bases-loaded rally in the ninth inning to hang-on for a dramatic 6-3 Conference USA victory over visiting UAB in head coach Wayne Graham’s final home game at Reckling Park Sunday afternoon.
With the win Sunday Rice is now 23-27-2 on the season and 11-14-2 in C-USA games to tie for seventh place in the league standings with UAB. Both the Owls and Blazers have identical .444 C-USA win-percentages, but by having won this weekend’s head-to-head series Rice holds seventh in the C-USA standings while UAB (now 20-28 overall and 12-15 in conference) is listed eighth. There are still another three key league games to play next weekend, so note that the top eight teams that will make the conference postseason tournament is far from official just yet.
Sunday was certainly a big step in the right direction, and it came down to the game’s final pitch.
Down 6-3 to start the top of the ninth inning, UAB’s top of the batting order continued to fight. A leadoff single, walk and hit batsman loaded the bases with no outs. Rice veteran right-hander Kendal Jefferies, however, had been in tight spots like this before. The versatile junior from Spring, Texas, got UAB to hit a shallow fly to right field (where the Blazers elected not to try to turn the out into a run-scoring sac fly). Jefferies then induced an infield-fly-rule out to shortstop, before getting the final batter with a swinging strikeout on a full count. Jefferies secured his team-leading fourth save of the season while the team got some necessary breathing room in the conference standings.
It was the top of the UAB batting order that had initially jumped on the scoreboard for a pair of runs in the top of the first inning. Back-to-back doubles by Colton Schultz and Carter Pahris scored one run before Pharis was later able to score on a wild pitch.
Fresh from their Rice Senior-Day recognition held in a pregame ceremony, Owl veterans Andrew Dunlap and Chace Sarchet put together some two-out magic to tie the game in the bottom of the second. Dunlap knocked a two-out double and scored from second on Sarchet’s single to right field. Sarchet advanced to scoring position on a walk to Bradley Gneiting, and then dashed home on Justin Collins’ single to left-center.
The Blazers broke the deadlock with a run on four hits in the sixth, but Rice answered with two in the bottom of the frame. Dominic DiCaprio led off with a big double to right and Trei Cruz followed with a walk to put runners on first and second.
UAB could very well have expected Dunlap, a slugger with no sac bunts who is second on the team in home runs this season (and who in fact hit two homers in a game against the Blazers a year ago in Birmingham) to try and drive the ball hard like all the scouting reports says he does. Coach Graham, however, had Dunlap get DiCaprio & Cruz into scoring position with a sacrifice (while also staying out of a double-play). It worked to perfection.
Dunlap put down a text-book sac bunt to advance the Owl runners. The red-hot-hitting Sarchet followed with a base hit through the left side to drive-in both for his third RBI of the day.
The Owls were now up 4-3, but the offense wasn’t quite finished. Rice added two more insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth to stretch the margin to 6-3. Having a new three-run lead was a safer spot to be in as UAB tried to battle back in the ninth.
Almost lost in all the day’s story lines and out-of-town scoreboard-watching was a sensational relief effort by Rice true freshman Dane Acker. The right-hander from Brenham, Texas, worked a career-long 6.1 innings allowing just one run as Rice battled to get in font of UAB, twice.
Rice’s home slate has concluded but the team still has four games remaining in the regular season. The Owls next meet crosstown rival Houston on Tuesday (May 15) at the neutral site of Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas. Start time at the minor league home of the Sugar Land Skeeters is set for 7 pm. Rice then heads to Miami, Fla., for a three-game C-USA series vs. FIU starting on Thursday (May 17).