June 10, 2013
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RALEIGH, N.C. - For the second time in as many days the Rice baseball team was just an inning away from posting a win in an NCAA Super Regional, only to have both contests slip way in a pair of one-run defeats.
In the Super Regional opener on Saturday, NC State rallied in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 win. On Sunday, the Wolf Pack scored three runs in the ninth to tie the game, 4-4, before eventually winning the longest Super Regional game in NCAA history by a score of 5-4 in 17 innings.
NC State (49-14) claimed the home Super Regional crown and advances to the College World Series next week in Omaha, Nebraska. Rice's season has come to an end with a final record of 44-20.
Sunday the Owls were once again as close to a win as the eventual defeat was draining, physically and emotionally. Playing as the home team in the NCAA Tournament format, Rice jumped on the scoreboard in the bottom of the first inning with a solo home run from Christian Stringer.
The Owls doubled the margin to 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth with another homer by Stringer, his second of the day and third of the weekend. In a little more than 24 hours in Raleigh, the senior second baseman from Longview, Tex., had doubled his career home run total from three to six.
Rice starting pitcher Jordan Stephens meanwhile was sound and solid, firing 6.0 shutout frames with five strikeouts. In the seventh, NC State put a run on the board on three hits. The Pack attempted to tie the game by scoring from third base on a fly out with one away, but Rice freshman centerfielder Leon Byrd made a sensational throw to get the runner at home plate after a catch of a fly ball.
The Owls converted Byrd's defensive gem into a leadoff solo home run to left field by Michael Aquino in the bottom of the inning. In the eighth Keenan Cook doubled and Shane Hoelscher singled to put runners at the corners. Cook scored on a bunt single by Byrd to stretch the margin to 4-1.
The three runs were not enough in the ninth. NC State tied the game 4-4 on three hits, including two doubles, a hit batsman, and an Owl fielding error.
Rice had a tremendous chance to get the winning run across in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, but the Wolf Pack avoided any damage and sent the game into extra innings.
The teams were still deadlocked in the bottom of the 12th when rains forced the game to be delayed an additional 77 minutes. It didn't seem to do either offense any favors. Rice's John Simms would work a total of 7.2 innings in relief as the game moved into the 17th.
NC State finally broke through for a run in the top of the 17th on two hits and a Rice error. The Owls battled to the end, putting the tying run on third and the winning run on first before the Wolf Pack ended the inning and the game.
The Owls finished the marathon with 11 hits. Aquino went 4-for-7 on the day with his ninth round-tripper of the season. Stringer had two homers and drew a total of three walks. Byrd also finished with two hits, an RBI and defensive assist.
Under the direction of 22nd year head coach Wayne Graham, Rice baseball advanced to NCAA postseason play for the 19th consecutive year in a row. The Owls also reached the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the tenth time since 1999 (when the format was first-adopted). The Blue & Gray extended its streak of winning conference championships to 18-straight years by winning both the 2013 Conference USA regular season and tournament titles.
Individually the Owls won a host of honors and awards for their success on the field and in the classroom. While the NCAA Super Regionals were being played this weekend, no less than five Rice players were selected in the 2013 Major League Baseball draft.