HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The Rice baseball team rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and had the tying run just 90 feet away on third base, before FIU held on for a 6-5 win over the Owls in Wednesday's opening round of the annual Conference USA Baseball Tournament in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Rice is now 35-19 on the season. The Owls next play Middle Tennessee in a 9 am elimination game on Thursday (May 21) in the double-elimination format.
Rain and lightning delayed the action for nearly two hours in the middle of the contest with FIU leading 6-2. Rice brought some thunder in the bottom of the ninth with a dramatic three-run rally to make it 6-5.
Facing a four-run deficit the Blue & Gray had their work cut out for them. Hunter Kopycinski and Grayson Lewis drew one-out walks and Charlie Warren was hit by a pitch to load the stations. Already with two hits on the day, senior Ford Stainback followed with a big two-run double to the gap in left-center field.
John Clay Reeves then lined a pitch up the middle of the field that looked like it might have a chance to sneak through for base hit, but FIU snared the bounding ball and got the out at first base. Warren scored easily to make it 6-5, and Stainback hustled for third, but FIU got the final out. The Panthers are now 26-29 and advance to meet UTSA Thursday in the winner's bracket game.
"(FIU) did a very good job of hitting," said Rice head coach Wayne Graham." You have to credit them. They are a good hitting ball club."
Rice had the lead early, pushing across single runs in the bottom of the second and third innings. In the second, Tristan Gray led off with a single and alertly hustled to second on an FIU fielding error. He went to third on a ground out to the right side and scored on Kopycinski's two-out double to left.
Warren and Stainback started the third with singles that put runners on the corners. FIU turned a double-play, but Warren trotted home with the run for the 2-0 advantage.
The Panthers came right back with four runs in the top of the fourth and another two in the fifth for a 6-2 advantage. Rice right-hander Jordan Stephens started on the mound and pitched 3.0 innings on a predetermined amount of work. He scattered four hits with four strikeouts and no walks. Two Owl relievers after him proceeded to surrender four runs on four hits in the next two frames.
Before Rice batted in the bottom of the fifth a one-hour and 54-minute weather delay brought the game to a halt. Both teams brought in new pitchers. The Owls could only get four men on base from the fifth to the eighth.
"(The rain) didn't hurt us, we didn't give up any more runs," coach Graham explained. "I thought it might even help us.
"At the end we were one swing away from tying the game," he said. "We had runners on second and third with our Nos. 4 & 5 hitters up and we couldn't tie the game this time."
"We have enough pitching," Graham added. "We just have to start playing better ball."