May 26, 2013Keenan Cook delivered the walk-off game-winning base hit in the bottom of the eleventh inning to lift the Rice baseball team to a 5-4 victory over visiting Southern Miss in the Championship Final of the Conference USA tournament Sunday afternoon at Reckling Park.
With the win Rice, now 41-17 overall, officially clinched its 19th-straight bid to an NCAA Regional - and provided some necessary relief for the Owls' 22nd-year head coach Wayne Graham.
"I can sleep tonight," coach Graham quipped. "Otherwise I was going to have a fitful night. We certainly deserved a bid regardless (of Sunday's outcome), but I don't like to have to sleep on it and worry about it."
Success in the conference tournament is nothing new for Rice. Under coach Graham the Owls have now won nine tourney titles in three different leagues. The Blue & Gray won the final Southwest Conference tournament in 1996 and three Western Athletic Conference tournaments (1997-99) while that league held the event. The C-USA tournament title is Rice's fifth in eight years since joining the conference (2006, 2007, 2009, 2011 & 2013).
For all of Rice's tourney titles, winning Sunday's first-ever showdown of C-USA's two regular season co-champions was perhaps its most dramatic.
Rice tied the contest, 4-4, with a run in the bottom of the seventh, but the Southern Miss defense settled into a groove and retired eight in a row to get the first out in the bottom of the eleventh. Skyler Ewing was hit by a pitch to give the Owls a needed base-runner. Ford Stainback reached on a fielder's choice for a second out, but Christian Stringer slapped a base hit through the right side that put runners at the corners. Cook followed with a single to right-center to score Stainback for the 5-4 final that officially punched Rice's ticket into the postseason.
The team erupted onto the field to congratulate Cook for the game-winning hit. One of the first Owls to congratulate his teammate was reliever and winning pitcher Zech Lemond. The first team all-conference closer with the school's single-season record 14 saves entered the game in the top of the fifth. Lemond proceeded to work a career-long 6.2 innings, scattering four hits and one walk while striking out two. He allowed one run, which was unearned, after a fielding error.
The impromptu celebration capped an enduring, three-and-a-half hour nationally-televised championship game. In the early going it appeared Rice would coast through the contest just as the team had done in the week-long pod-play. In winning its pod, Owls went 3-0 with a 1.00 team ERA in 27 innings prior to the Final.
For the third time in as many games the Owls quickly jumped on the scoreboard in the first inning. Four walks after Stainback's leadoff single plated a pair of runs for a 2-0 advantage. Rice added another in the bottom of the third on a leadoff double by Michael Ratterree and infield hit by Shane Hoelscher. Ratterree scored on a ground out to make it 3-0.
Southern Miss came right back with two runs in the top of the fourth. With runners on first and second and one away, the Owls had chance to get one (or perhaps two) outs on an infield grounder. A fielding error, however, allowed one run to score and still left two runners on the bases. Rice made one run-saving play to get an out at the plate when a pitch went wide. USM added another score on an RBI double by Blake Brown to make it 3-2 before getting out of the inning.
The Golden Eagles added another run in the fifth to tie the game. Bradley Roney was hit by a pitch to start the frame. He advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and third on wild pitch before scoring on Travis Creel's RBI single.
USM took advantage of a pair of Owl errors to take the lead in the top of the sixth. Tim Lynch's sacrifice fly drove in Isaac Rodriguez for 4-3 Golden Eagle lead.
Rice drew three-straight walks with one out in the bottom of the seventh. Hoelscher's sacrifice fly scored Stringer to make it 4-4. The teams were deadlocked for three more scoreless frames until the bottom of the eleventh.
A total of six Owls were named to the Championship's All-Tournament team. Stringer was named to the Most Valuable player after batting .500 and drawing six walks for a .650 on-base percentage. The 2013 Honorees included: C: Keaton Aldridge, Memphis; Infielders: Shane Hoelscher, Rice, Zach Houchins, East Carolina, Justin Montemayor, Houston, Christian Stringer, Rice; Outfielders: Blake Brown, Southern Miss, Leon Byrd, Rice , Dillon Day, Southern Miss; DH Drew Reynolds, East Carolina; Pitchers: Jake Drehoff, Southern Miss, Austin Kubitza, Rice, John Simms, Rice, Jordan Stephens, Rice.
Southern Miss dropped to 30-27 on the season. Rice next awaits to learn its fate as to where the team will play in the NCAA Tournament. The Owls have played 18-straight NCAA Regionals, the sixth-longest streak in Division I history. The 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced on Monday, May 27, at 11 am (Central Time) on ESPNU.