May 16, 2014
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HOUSTON - The Rice pitching tandem of Blake Fox and Matt Ditman combined for a two-hit, 3-0 shutout win over visiting Louisiana Tech Friday evening at Reckling Park to clinch the outright 2014 Conference USA regular season championship - the baseball program's 19th-consecutive conference title spanning three different leagues dating back to 1996.
It turned out that as earlier C-USA games from the east coast became final, Rice did not even need to win Friday's contest to clinch a share of the conference crown and the No. 1 seed of the upcoming league tournament. The Owl players wanted to avoid sharing the 2014 regular season title like they did in 2013, but they also did not want (nor need) to rely on another team's help this time.
In his staff-leading 13th start of the season Fox fired 8.0 scoreless frames on the way to improving his record to a perfect 11-0. The sophomore left-hander scattered two hits and three walks while striking out seven. Meanwhile Louisiana Tech starter Braden Bristo, a true freshman, was equally solid with six shutout innings and four strikeouts of his own.
Owl sophomore Leon Byrd drew a walk to lead off the bottom of the seventh and Keenan Cook was hit by a pitch to put runners on first second. Shane Hoelscher followed with a single to left-center and Byrd sprinted home for a 1-0 lead. The offense wasn't quite finished, and proceeded to add two more insurance runs as Kirby Taylor came off the bench to deliver a one-out RBI single up the middle that made the score 3-0.
Rice head coach Wayne Graham went to Ditman out of the bullpen to start the top of the ninth. The Bulldogs drew a leadoff walk, but on the next batter shortstop Ford Stainback fielded a tricky ground ball behind second, stepped on the base for one out and fired to first to complete a double play. Ditman quickly fanned the very next batter to preserve the clean slate and notch his team-leading ninth save.
Steady as ever, the conference championship was Rice baseball's 19th in a row including either outright or shared regular season titles, or by winning conference tournament crown. Coach Graham cautions that where the titles may now seem to be a given, there is never a shortage of obstacles and that consistency requires a diligent daily effort.
"It was hard to get the first one," Coach Graham said. "Once we got over that hump we've been able to do it every year so far. We're going to try and keep it going."
With the win Rice improved to 36-17 overall 22-7 in conference. The Owls now have a three-game lead over second place in the C-USA standings with just one game remaining in the regular season. LA Tech is now 15-33 overall and 5-23 in C-USA.
The weekend series concludes Saturday at Reckling Park. First pitch is set for 1 pm. Six Rice seniors will be honored before the start of the contest.