May 16, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Rice junior shortstop Rick Hague hadn't witnessed anything like it, and Owls sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon echoed that sentiment. Junior righthander Boogie Anagnostou noted that if the Owls were stunned by their improbable comeback on Sunday afternoon, just imagine how Southern Miss felt in the visiting dugout at Reckling Park.
For the second time in less than 24 hours the Owls mounted an inconceivable rally, but unlike their effort in the opener of their three-game series with the Golden Eagles, the Owls did not fall short this time, erasing a 10-run deficit with a 19-0 offensive blitz for a wild 21-14 win.
With the victory No. 24 Rice (32-19, 15-6 Conference USA) clinched at least a share of the regular-season C-USA championship and the No. 1 seed for the postseason tournament. The Owls hold a three-game lead over Southern Miss (30-19, 12-9) with three games remaining, and by virtue of their claiming this hotly contested series, own the tiebreaker over the Golden Eagles. It was Southern Miss that appeared poised to take the rubber match of this three-game set before Rice staged its second rally from a seemingly insurmountable deficit in as many days.
"This was definitely a unique game. I've never been in a game like this," Hague said after going 1-for-3 with three RBIs. "But I think we showed ourselves that we can come back from almost anything. And if we can have some pitchers step up like Boogie did, we can beat a lot of teams."
Southern Miss shortstop B.A. Vollmuth almost singlehandedly carried the Golden Eagles to their 12-2 lead, blasting an opposite-field three-run homer off Rice starter Jared Rogers in the first before rallying from an 0-2 count to crank a grand slam against Tyler Duffey in the third. Golden Eagles first baseman Mark Ellis followed with a solo homer to right-center field to extend the lead to double digits, chase Duffey, and inspire Rice coach Wayne Graham to make a most fateful pitching change. Anagnostou entered with two outs and walked Dillon Day before getting third baseman Joey Archer to ground out to Hague. For the Golden Eagles, the Archer at-bat was a harbinger of things to come offensively.
Anagnostou would go on to record a dozen ground-ball outs while shutting out the Golden Eagles before tiring in the ninth. His two-seam fastball had impressive sink, and besides his troubles with Vollmuth, who finished the weekend with four homers and 11 RBIs, Anagnostou was in complete control before being lifted with one out in the ninth.
"Basically all I can do as a pitcher is throw strikes, try to get people out, and keep us right where we were at," Anagnostou said of the deficit. "I was lucky that in the bottom of that inning we scored seven, and there were are right back in the game. After that it was pretty easy."
Said Graham of Anagnostou: "It looked like he had his head on straight, and there was no doubt that he did. You can almost see it in the demeanor of some of our guys that go out there. He's focused."
The Owls scored eight runs in the eighth inning in the series opener and the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday only to strand the tying run at third base and lose 11-10. Rice didn't waste any time responding to the Golden Eagles' offensive eruption in the top of the third, scoring seven runs in the bottom half to knock starter Jay Myrick from the game.
Ten batters came to the plate for the Owls, with freshman second baseman Michael Ratterree striking the biggest blow of the frame via a three-run home run off Cody Schlagel. Suddenly the deficit was a mere three runs, and after Anagnostou retired the Golden Eagles in order in the fourth, the Owls quickly moved ahead with five runs on three hits.
Senior center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh, who ignited the surge in the third with his leadoff single, put the Owls ahead to stay at 14-12 with his two-run single facing a two-out, two-strike count against Ryan MacNamara (1-2). Once they seized the lead the Owls did not relent, as Rendon tacked on a solo home run in the fifth and a two-run shot in the eighth that capped the Owls' second five-run frame. At times this season the Owls had their resilience questioned, but given their performances this weekend, few would dare to publicly challenge their character.
"We obviously dug down deep to try to pull something out, and we actually worked," said Rendon, whose 41 career home runs ranks fifth in program history. "We kept on fighting and fighting, and I guess we reminisced on the first game where we tried to come back and actually didn't get it. We wanted to come back and get this win in the third game.
"I guess our team chemistry is a lot better. I guess we're trusting ourselves more. A lot of our hitters are starting to come around. I guess we have a lot of fight left in us. We have a lot of talent."
That talent has been on display in spurts, but when the situation is most dire the Owls have delivered. The reward for their relentlessness is a 15th consecutive league championship, a span that includes titles in the Southwest Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, and C-USA.
"We've overcome a lot of obstacles," Hague said. "The fact we're still in first place and have a lot to play for still shows we have a lot of talent."