GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Junior catcher Danny Lehmann broke a 5-5 deadlock with an RBI single in the top of the eighth inning and the second-ranked Rice baseball team rode a sensational relief outing from sophomore Matt Langwell to a hard-fought 7-5 victory over Memphis in the the Owls' second game of the annual Conference USA Postseason Tournament Thursday afternoon at Clark-LeClair Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
Not only was the game Rice's 20th-straight victory on the season as well as the 28th win in the last 29 games, it more importantly allowed the team some breathing room in the week-long tournament. By advancing in the winner's bracket, the Owls get Friday (May 25) off and don't have to return to the field until Saturday morning. At that point, the winner of Friday's Memphis-UCF elimination game would have to beat Rice twice on Saturday to keep the Owls from reaching the tournament's championship final on Sunday.
Playing as the visiting team in the second round of the tournament, the Owls quickly opened the scoring in the top of the first inning. Brian Friday led off with a single through the left side on the very first pitch. Two batters later, first baseman Joe Savery drove the ball over the left field wall for a two-run homer and a 2-0 lead.
Memphis showed its 12-run, 19-hit performance against the University of Houston in the opening round of the tournament the day before was no fluke. The Tigers batted around in the bottom of the first inning to explode for five runs. The team had five hits and a walk, including a big two-out, two-run double by Tyler Huelsing after three runs had already been pushed across.
Down but not out, the Owls did not panic. The first step was to bring Langwell out of the bullpen in the first inning. The next step was to bounce right back on offense and score some runs. In the top of the second, Jess Buenger led off with a single and Jordan Dodson drew a two-out walk. The runners advanced on a balk and Friday made the most of having two runners in scoring position. He singled to center to score both men and Rice had cut the margin to one, 5-4.
Rice took advantage of a Memphis fielding miscue to tie the game in the fifth. Aaron Luna hit a one-out infield single. He advanced to second on another Memphis balk and to third on a ground out to the right side. A two-base Tiger error off the bat of Diego Seastrunk allowed Luna to score and tie the game, 5-5.
The Owls took the lead and a little more with two runs in the eighth. Tyler Henley slapped a double to left to lead it off and Danny Lehmann singled to center to bring him home for the team's first lead of the game since the top of the first inning. Rice then added an insurance run to make score 7-5. Lehmann was retired when Friday reached on a fielder's choice. Friday opportunistically took second on an errant pickoff attempt and scored on an RBI single by Chad Lembeck.
While the Rice hitters chipped away and finally took the lead, all Langwell did in the meantime was keep one of the best hitting teams in the conference off the scoreboard for the longest outing of his career at 7.1 innings. The College Station, Tex., native allowed just three hits and a walk to go along with a career-high nine strikeouts. Only three Memphis batters he faced reached scoring position.
All that was left was for All-America closer Cole St.Clair to hold the Tigers in check and the junior left-hander delivered. He allowed a leadoff walk, but induced a 4-6-3 double-play grounder on the next batter. On the third and final batter Buenger fielded a high pop-up behind first base for the final out. The Owls had completed the comeback win to improve to 47-11 on the season. Langwell improved his record to 6-1 and he lowered his team-leading ERA to 1.91. St.Clair's save was his sixth of the season the 19th of his career.
Memphis fell to 34-24 but the Tigers are far from finished in the tournament. Memphis meets UCF on Friday. Saturday's first pitch of Rice vs. Memphis/UCF winner is set for 9 am Easten Time (8 am Central). The league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line in Sunday's championship final.