HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- The Rice baseball team bounced back from an early deficit and then held-off a dramatic ninth inning to claim an 11-9 victory over No. 27 ranked Louisiana Tech in a second elimination game late Thursday evening in Hattiesburg, Miss.
With the win Rice (35-21overall) has reached Sunday's Championship Final of the league's annual conference tournament where an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will be on the line. Now in the program's eleventh season of playing in Conference USA, the Owls have advanced to Sunday's Championship Final eight times and the team has won the event seven times (most recently in 2014).
Rice baseball is playing for a chance to win its 21st-consecutive conference championship overall, a streak that includes membership in three different leagues and titles won in both the regular season and at league tournament. The Owls will be the first to say that getting to Sunday's Final was only after a full day of battling on Saturday.
Rice's day began with a 9 am contest that was an elimination game for co-semifinalist and the tournament's No. 5 seed LA Tech. The Bulldogs won the first of the slugfest, 13-10, setting us a second elimination game that began more than 90 minutes after its projected 4 pm first pitch.
Playing as the visiting team in the second game, Rice used the longball to start the scoring in the top of the second inning. Grayson Lewis and Dominic DiCaprio started it off with consecutive singles. Dayne Wunderlich followed with a towering homerun to left field. His fourth shot of the season spotted the Owls a 3-0 advantage.
LA Tech came right back with a five-run frame in its half of the inning. The Bulldogs had only three hits, but batted around to take a 5-3 lead with two walks and three stolen bases.
Rice responded with authority, and proceeded to score six unanswered runs over the next three innings. The Owls had two in the third, one in the fourth, and a big four-run fifth. Grayson Lewis led off the fifth with a solo shot, but Charlie Warren drove in two with a single and scored on a triple by Ford Proctor to make the score 10-5.
The Bulldogs loaded the bases in the fifth and pushed across a run. The Owls, however, got it back in the top of the sixth with a leadoff homer from Connor Teykl. The blast was his second of the year for an 11-6 lead.
LA Tech continued to fight, and scored twice in the seventh while getting just one hit. The Bulldogs then pulled within two runs, 11-9 with a one-out solo homer to right-center field by Chase Lunceford. After a Raphael Gladeau single, Tech twice brought the tying run to the plate but Rice got a diving catch by Warren of a fly ball in right field and Teykl then snared a rocket-line drive to end the threat.
It was a satisfying finish as LA Tech had won something of a mirror-opposite match earlier in the morning. The Bulldogs opened the scoring with a pair of runs, but Rice surged in front with four of its own to take the lead.
The see-saw slugfest was on. Tech got one run back in the third and two more in the fourth. A two-run homer by Brent Diaz was the big hit that put the Bulldogs up 5-4.
The Owls looked strong posting a three-run fifth to take a 7-5 lead. The Bulldogs used home runs to power their way back in front in the top of the fifth. Three Tech players hit homers around a hit and a walk to bounce back in front, 10-7.
Tech hit a two-run homer, its fifth of the game, to stretch the margin to 12-7 in the seventh. Rice continued to fight, and rallied for three more runs on three hits in the bottom of the eighth to pull back within two, 12-10. The Bulldogs added one final insurance score in the ninth in a wild 13-10 final. It was the first time Rice pitchers had allowed five homers in a game in a dozen years.
When all the day's offensive fireworks had finished, as well as the evening influx of insects, Rice had made it to Sunday. The Owls are now 35-21 on the season. Louisiana Tech's season, with a strong 40-18 record, is not quite over either.