The Rice Owls baseball team had to put in some extra time on Sunday, but the extra hard work resulted in Rice winning the longest championship game played in C-USA history.
The Owls beat Southern Miss 5-4 in 11 innings to claim the C-USA Championship postseason title. With runners on the corners and two outs, Kennan Cook lined a Nick Johnson pitch just over the head of Golden Eagles’ second baseman Isaac Rodriguez to send the team running onto the field as Ford Stainback crossed home plate.
“I was just thinking this was a great opportunity to believe in myself,” Cook said about coming to bat in the 11th. “I knew he was going to come at me on the first pitch, and I was ready for it. The pitching was just phenomenal, and we came away with the victory.”
After beating Memphis Saturday, Rice head coach Wayne Graham said, “I better use (Zech) Lemond tomorrow to the best advantage, because he’s fresh and well-rested.” And use him to his best advantage Graham did. After Rice starter Jordan Stephens went three and one-third innings and Blake Fox went one inning, Graham brought Lemond into the game and rode him the rest of the way. For Lemond, it was the longest appearance of his Rice career — six and two-thirds innings. Lemond shut Southern Miss down by giving up just four hits and no earned runs and striking out two.
“Lemond hadn’t thrown nearly that many pitches this year,” Graham said. “I didn’t think we’d need him to throw that many pitches. He hung in there and kept us in the game. I think he did an incredible job.”
“People paid for tickets and you have to make them happy,” Lemond said. “It feels good. I just like to win and so does everyone else, so it’s really enjoyable. Stephens said he was going to go four, and I was going to go five. I was really ready for anything.”
Rice’s offense started the game off patiently. The Owls drew three walks, had a batter hit by pitch and sent eight men to the plate. By the end of the first inning, Rice had a 2-0 lead. Rice added a third run in the third inning when Michael Ratterree doubled to right-center field and then scored on a fielder’s choice double play.
Southern Miss didn’t lie down, though. Starting in the fourth inning, the Golden Eagles mounted a comeback by scoring two runs in the fourth and one run in the fifth to tie the game. In the sixth inning the Owls committed two costly errors that led to the Golden Eagles taking a 4-3 lead.
The Owls weren’t behind for long.
In the seventh inning, Southern Miss relief pitcher Andrew Pierce, who had kept the Owls in check since the fourth inning, got Stainback to ground out to short but then gave up consecutive walks to Christian Stringer, Cook and Ratterree. Hoeschler then drove in the tying run with a sacrifice fly to left field.
Both Lemond and Southern Miss reliever Nick Johnson kept opposing hitters at bay for the eighth, ninth and 10th innings, until Rice scored the decisive run in the bottom of the 11th inning.
“You don’t want to leave this place with a loss,” said Stringer, the C-USA Championship MVP. “To come out with a great, exciting win like that – a conference championship – it’s so much fun with a great group of guys.”
With the victory, the Owls secured an automatic bid to the NCAA postseason tournament. “I can sleep tonight,” Graham said, now knowing the Owls will be in the NCAA field. “Otherwise I was going to have a fitful night.”
Rice will learn which regional they’ll open play shortly after 11 a.m. Memorial Day when the NCAA selection show airs on ESPNU.
The Owls will head into next weekend’s NCAA regional still hot from winning all four C-USA Championship games — they beat University of Alabama-Birmingham, University of Central Florida, University of Memphis and Southern Miss. They have won eight in a row, and their season record is now 41-17. The Owls now have 40 or more wins in 19 consecutive seasons under Graham.
When asked where he’d like to play in the NCAA regionals, Graham said laughing, “Somewhere cool; Oregon would be fine.”
Rice will travel to Eugene, Ore., for the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Joining the University of Oregon and Rice will be South Dakota State University and the University of San Francisco. Rice will play San Francisco at 4 p.m. CDT May 31.