HOUSTON - The Rice baseball team defeated visiting FIU 3-2 in the first game of Saturday's double-header at Reckling Park to clinch the 2015 C-USA regular season title outright. The Owls won the second game of the seven-inning twin-bill 7-4, wrapping-up a long day of baseball with firm possession of the program's 20th-consecutive conference championship spanning three different leagues dating back to 1996.
With the outcome of other league games from Friday night (May 15) already giving Rice at least a share of the C-USA regular season championship, as well as the No. 1 seed of the upcoming league tournament, all that was left for the Owls on Saturday was to try and win the title outright. For that, the Blue & Gray needed to win only one of the double-header games. Rice could then play in the upcoming league tournament without sharing the title, or having to rely on another team's help, or perhaps some tricky tie-breaking formula.
On Saturday Rice needed to win one. In the tradition of the baseball program has come to enjoy under head coach Wayne Graham, the Owls won both games.
In game one Rice jumped on the scoreboard for a pair of runs on three hits and a sacrifice fly. Ford Stainback singled and scored on a base-hit through the right side by Connor Teykl. Charlie Warren singled and scored from third on Tristan Gray's sac fly for a 2-0 advantage.
The Owls added another score in the fourth. Grayson Lewis drew a leadoff walk and hustled to third on Hunter Kopycinski's single to right. Lewis dashed home as FIU had trouble with a short grounder that extended the margin to 3-0.
Rice starting pitcher Kevin McCanna meanwhile was sound and solid, scattering four hits and a walk over 5.0 innings (of a 7.0 inning game). The junior right-hander surrendered an unearned run in the top of the fifth as FIU's Julius Gaines went to third on a base hit, and alertly took an extra 90 feet after the Owls made a fielding error. The Panthers continued fight and pulled to within one run, 3-2, with another score in the sixth off the Owls' bullpen. FIU then put the tying run in scoring position in the seventh, but Rice reliever Matt Ditman ended the threat to preserve the victory with his team-leading tenth save of the season.
With the outright title secured, game two initially looked like it might turn into a Rice run-away win. The Owls drew a base-loaded walk to take a 1-0 lead in the second inning. The Blue and Gray then erupted for six big runs in the fourth on five hits and a pair of walks. The big blows were a bases-loaded single up the middle by senior John Clay Reeves to score two, and a two-out triple to the gap in right center by Gray to score two more.
Up 7-0 seemed like an excess of insurance. Rice junior left-hander Blake Fox was on mound with 5.0 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out four. The Panthers battled back though for four runs off the bullpen in the sixth. A leadoff walk, two singles and three-run homer by Josh Anderson cut the margin to 7-4. Rice retired FIU three-up, three-down, in the seventh to close out the sweep of the day's action.
The Owls improved to 34-18 overall 22-8 in C-USA. Rice officially finished 2.5 games ahead in the league standings of co-second place teams Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. Both ended the regular season with identical 19-10 C-USA records. FIU is now 25-29 on the season and 13-17 in conference.
It was a tough double-header vs. FIU, and a short time after the final out of the second game Rice learned it must now face the Panthers yet again in the C-USA Tournament. The Owls (the No. 1 seed) meet No. 8 seed FIU at 12:30 pm at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, Miss., beginning on Wednesday (May 20). The double-elimination tournament concludes with a one-game championship final on Sunday (May 24) where the league' automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will be on the line.