HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The Rice baseball team rallied to take the lead heading into the ninth inning, only to have Middle Tennessee slip away with a 6-5 win over the Owls in Thursday morning's elimination game at the annual Conference USA Baseball Tournament in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Like Wednesday's opening round game of the tournament, which ended by the identical narrow one-run score of 6-5, Rice came up just short in the ninth. The Owls made two costly fielding errors and had a pair of wild pitches as Middle Tennessee plated two runs - the first to tie and the second to take the lead.
"We have struggled with defense all year," said Rice head coach Wayne Graham. "We had some bad plays at the end. It is heartbreaking. It is baseball, you've got to live with it."
"We just didn't play well," he added. "It is hard to understand at this time of year that stuff happening, but it does. They are young. We hope we will rebound from it."
Middle Tennessee scored a run on a wild pitch in the top of the second and added another in the third on an RBI double by Jared Allen. The Blue Raiders added two more in the fourth after Rice did not get a close call at first base on shortstop Tristan Gray's solid stop and throw on a ball hit deep in the hole. An Owl fielding error later in the inning then added some extra time as well as a 4-0 deficit.
Down but not out, Gray laced a triple to right in the bottom of the inning and Ryan Chandler drove him home to make it 4-1. The Owls rallied for two more on three hits in the sixth. Rice tied the game in the seventh as Grayson Lewis drew a one-out walk and hustled to second on a wild pitch before scoring on Ford Stainback's RBI single to right field.
Rice took its first lead, 5-4, in the eighth. Chandler singled with one away and scored all the way from first base on John Williamson's rocket double down the right field line. The Owls could have used a little more insurance runs that inning, or brought in the nine the team left on base over the course of the game.
Rice is now 35-20 on the season. The Owls next await a possible a large selection to the NCAA Tournament to be held at 16 NCAA Regional sites across the country.
"I hope we are in a Regional, but there is no certainty there," coach Graham stated. "We will work hard and try to correct our mistakes."