Owls claim C-USA regular season title Saturday with 5-2 win at UCF
FROM RICE ATHLETICS
The Rice baseball team pounded out 14 hits and relied on solid work from three different pitchers to defeat the University of Central Florida (UCF) 5-2 in the final game of a weekend series Saturday in Orlando, Fla. The win clinched the Conference USA title for the Owls, who have now won 17 consecutive league championships in baseball dating back to 1996.
Rice’s consecutive conference championship streak, which includes regular season and tournament titles, spans the Owls’ membership in three different conferences. The 2012 C-USA title is the Rice program’s seventh straight since joining the conference for baseball in 2006. The Owls have won or shared six C-USA regular season titles overall and won the league tournament four times (including the one year the team did not win the regular season in 2009).
For all of the Owls’ experience garnering conference championship hardware, Saturday’s showdown at nationally ranked UCF was a little different. For the first time in C-USA history, winning the league’s regular season title came down to the final day of the conference schedule with a winner-take-all game.
Rice went right to work, scoring a run in the top of the first inning. Michael Fuda singled to center field and stole second to move into scoring position. He scored on Jeremy Rathjen’s single up the middle for a 1-0 advantage.
UCF responded with a run in the bottom of the inning. Ronnie Richardson and Darnell Sweeney started it off with back-to-back singles, and the duo moved up 90 feet on a sacrifice bunt by Chris Taladay. Richardson scored on D.J. Hicks’ sacrifice fly to make it 1-1.
The Owls moved back in front in the top of the second. Geoff Perrott led off with a single and a Ryan Lewis sacrifice advanced him to scoring position. He scored on a Ford Stainback single, and Christian Stringer followed with a base hit through the right side. Fuda’s second base hit of the day scored Stainback and a 3-1 lead.
The Blue & Gray took advantage of a UCF fielding error for a score in the fourth. Craig Manuel led off with a pinch-hit single, and another Lewis sacrifice moved him up a station. Stainback followed with a single to get Manuel to third, but the senior catcher alertly hustled an extra 90 feet to home plate on a Knight fielding error in the outfield.
Sophomore right-hander John Simms started on the mound for Rice and allowed just the one run in 5.1 innings of work. With a bend-but-don’t-break resolve, Simms scattered seven singles and three walks while striking out two. He worked out of a base-loaded jam in the second and left runners in scoring position in the first, fourth and fifth.
Simms was relieved by J.T. Chargois in the sixth, who worked out of danger to strand two men that inning. UCF took advantage of a Rice fielding error to add a run in the bottom of the seventh. Taladay reached on a one-out dropped pop-up, and Hicks followed with an RBI double down the right field line.
Holding a narrow 4-2 margin and the title still very much up for grabs, Rice head coach Wayne Graham went to his bullpen for Tyler Duffey to pitch the final two frames. The junior standout from Bellaire picked up right where he left off in Friday night’s 9-2 victory. Duffey struck out the side in the eighth, which seemed to spark the Owl offense to its final run in the top of the ninth for a 5-2 Rice margin.
With the bottom of the ninth left to finish, Duffey delivered again. He struck out the first batter in the ninth to give nine-straight strikeouts of nine batters over a two-game span. The streak was snapped with a base-on-balls, and after an Owl fielding error on a fielder’s choice play, UCF suddenly had the potential tying run at the plate. Duffey got the Knights to fly out and then a game-ending strikeout to preserve the win, 5-2, for title No. 17.
“It was a great pitching job by all concerned,” Graham said. “Duffey was phenomenal. He was the man this series. I don’t know if we’ve had a better relief performance than that. It really was phenomenal.
“(Early runs) were critical,” Graham added. “We did a good job of hitting to get the early runs, but then couldn’t tack on any more until the very end. Hopefully we’ll get some momentum (heading into the postseason) and that we get to be a national seed. That’s the main thing.”
Rice improved to 39-15 overall. UCF is now 41-14 on the year. The Owls also clinched the No. 1 seed at the upcoming C-USA Championship Tournament, scheduled to get under way May 23 in Pearl, Miss. The tourney features four days of pool play followed by a single Championship Final May 27.
Heading into the postseason stretch, Duffey said he likes this time of year.
“Last year we were in kind of the same situation, having to win two of three from Southern Miss on the last weekend of the season,” Duffey said. “Today’s game and series was pretty exciting. It has been a wild series (versus UCF), after the weather delays and all. We played well. We earned it.”