May 18, 2013Christian Stringer's fifth-inning two-run triple in his four-hit Senior Day game, gave the Rice baseball team a lead it would not relinquish in a 6-0 Conference USA win over visiting Marshall to complete a weekend series sweep of the Thundering Herd. With the victory Rice won the conference's regular season championship on the last day of league play and extended its streak of winning league championships to 18-straight years dating back to 1996.
The Owls have now won or shared 18-consecutive conference championships (including regular season and/or tournament titles) dating back to its membership in three different leagues. The 2013 C-USA title (which the Owls share with co-champion Southern Miss) is the Rice program's eighth-straight since joining the conference for baseball in 2006. The Owls have won or shared seven C-USA regular season titles overall, and won the league tournament four times (including the one year the team did not win the regular season crown in 2009).
Rice improved its record to 37-17 overall. The Owls and Southern Miss both finished with identical 15-9 C-USA records. In the head-to-head series between the two teams back on the opening weekend of league play (March 22-24), Rice won the best-of-three set two-games-to one. That head-to-head advantage clinched Rice's spot as the No. 1 seed at the upcoming C-USA Championship Tournament, scheduled to get underway on Wednesday (May 22) at the Owls' home at Reckling Park. The tourney features four days of pool play followed by a single Championship Final on Sunday (May 26).
Now in his 22nd season at Rice, and 33rd season overall as collegiate head coach, Wayne Graham know a little something about streaks in the game of baseball. Streaks of winning championships cannot be taken for granted.
"This was the hardest one of all," coach Graham said. "It's not so much we don't have a very good team. I think we do. It seems like everybody can beat you nowadays."
Make no mistake, with Rice and Southern Miss deadlocked in the standings the Blue & Gray had to defeat Marshall Saturday to guarantee the consecutive conference championship streak would reach 18-straight. Stringer and Owl hitters broke-through in the middle innings by scoring a total of six runs over four-straight frames.
Rice starting pitcher John Simms and the defense came through with a similar big-time performance on the other side. The Thundering Herd was hungry, and proceeded to load the bases with one out in the top of the second inning. Simms got a strikeout and tricky ground ball up the middle where Stringer didn't have enough time to get the final out by stepping on second for the force-play. He did though make a rocket throw to first base for the final out that saved a run.
Simms then proceeded to retire nine of the next ten he faced to get through 5.0 scoreless innings. His solution for walking the first Marshall hitter the Owls had allowed since the very first batter of the entire weekend series back on Thursday night was to pick him off of base where he was eventually caught in a rundown.
The Owls took the lead in the bottom of the same frame. Freshman Leon Byrd was hit by a pitch and Ford Stainback punched a bouncing base hit through into right field. Stringer followed with a triple to the wall in right field to score both men, but the team wasn't quite finished. Stringer dashed home on Keenan Cook's sacrifice fly for a 3-0 lead.
In the bottom of the sixth Michael Aquino drew a one-out walk, stole second base and hustled third on a wild pitch. She scored on a text-book bunt for a base hit by Byrd that made it 4-0.
Stringer led off the seventh with his season-high fourth hit of the day. He scored after one-out singles by Shane Hoelscher and Michael Ratterree. The Owls stretched the margin to 6-0 with its final run in the bottom of the eighth. Byrd led off with a double to right and scored on a base hit of the middle by Stainback.
The 6-0 lead was more than enough for Simms and sophomore reliever Zech Lemond, who was the game's finishing pitcher. Simms improved to 7-3 on the season by scattering three singles and two walks while striking out four in 7.0 innings. Lemond kept the shutout intact with three strikeouts in the final two innings.
"We're pitching and playing well on defense," coach Graham added. "It's hard to beat you if you don't give up any runs."
Not only was the shutout Rice's second-straight of the weekend against Marshall, it established a new school record of 11 shutouts in a single season. The 11 shutouts eclipsed the previous school record of ten set in 2003, and tied again the next year in 2004.