Recap by: John Sullivan, Rice Athletics (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BILOXI, Miss. -- Junior Dane Myers went 3-for-4 with a home run, four RBI, and three runs scored to help pace the Rice baseball team to a 13-2 victory over Florida Atlantic on the fourth day of action at the Conference USA Championship Tournament Saturday afternoon in Biloxi, Miss.
With the win Rice (30-29 overall) has reached Sunday's Championship Final of the league's annual conference tournament where an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line. Now in the program's twelfth season of playing in Conference USA, the Rice Owls have advanced to Sunday's Championship Final nine times and the team has won the event seven times (most recently in 2014).
Winning the tourney title is also the only way for Rice to advance to national postseason play. The program is looking to extend its 22-year streak of appearing in the NCAA Tournament. Sunday's Championship Final (vs. either Charlotte or Southern Miss) is set for 1 pm at MGM Park and will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
Rice was already in the driver's seat heading into Saturday's 9 am contest, needing only to win one of two possible games (if a second was indeed necessary). No. 3 seed Florida Atlantic meanwhile would have had to beat Rice twice to advance to Sunday.
It has been a long journey for the Blue & Gray to get its record back above .500 and put itself in a position to play for a conference title, so the team quickly showed it had no intention of relinquishing its spot behind the wheel.
Playing as the visiting team in the tournament's neutral setting, Ford Proctor lined a one-out double to the wall in left-center field in the top of the first inning. Myers followed by driving a 0-2 pitch over the wall in left. His sixth homer of the season gave Rice an early 2-0 advantage.
The Blue & Gray used the longball again for a pair of runs in the third. With two away in the frame Dominic DiCaprio was hit by a pitch. Tristan Gray then launched a pitch to the berm beyond right field to make it 4-0. The shot was his sixth of the year and 14th of his collegiate career.
Rice effectively delivered the knockout punch in the fourth, exploding for six runs on five hits and two FAU fielding errors. The big inning stretched the margin to 10-0 and was more than welcome breathing room as FAU continued to fight.
FAU (35-20-1) started the bottom of the fourth with a solo homer from Stephen Kerr. Rice was back on the offensive to start the fifth, getting the run back plus two more on three hits to make to 13-1. Kerr returned to connect on another pitch for a leadoff homer to start the sixth that made the score 13-2.
"We've had periods of time that we swung the bat well, and this happened to be one of them," said Rice head coach Wayne Graham. "It was good for us because we didn't need to play a second game, that's for sure."
Four players had two or more hits in a 13-hit attack. Rice posted its tenth game with double-digit runs. The squad has averaged 10.6 hits per game over the last 37 games the past two months. Myers ended up 3-for-4 on the day with the homer, four RBI and three runs scored. His defense at third base, however, was certainly big. With a run already in and runners on the corners in the fourth inning, Myers started a round-the-horn 5-4-3 double play that froze the FAU runner at third without scoring.
On a day Rice would need to preserve its pitching as much as possible, junior right-hander Willy Amador was sound and solid. The Bryan, Texas, native worked 6.0 valuable innings allowing just two runs on solo homers. He scattered six hits and surrendered only one walk. Kendal Jefferies worked the final scoreless inning.
"Myers had a really good game at third base," Graham said. "That picked up our pitching and Amador threw enough strikes to have a decent game. It got us out of here."