Rice plays North Carolina State again Sunday
The Rice Owls lost a heartbreaking opener 4-3 to North Carolina (NC) State University in the NCAA Super Regionals baseball tournament Saturday.
The series continues Sunday with game two of the best-of-three to determine who goes to the College World Series in Omaha.
NC State’s Doak Stadium was clear of the deluge that forced a day’s delay in the tourney, but heavy on the sweat as both teams’ aces, though plagued by mistakes, went toe-to-toe.
Though Rice controlled the middle innings with some terrific pitching from ace Austin Kubitza, North Carolina’s Wolfpack got everything it needed in the top and the bottom frames.
The ’Pack followed a Rice rally to take a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth with a rally of its own. NC State’s Jake Fincher slammed a hanging breaking ball into right off Rice closer Zech Lemond, who relieved Kubitza in the eighth, and brought Jake Armstrong home easily from third with the winning run.
Wildness hurt both Rice pitchers. Before settling down in the middle innings, Kubitza allowed two runs in the bottom of the first. NC leadoff hitter Trea Turner slapped a double to the wall in left and Kubitza hit the next batter, Fincher. Both advanced on a fielder’s choice. Turner scored first on a bunt, and a wild pitch by Kubitza let Fincher come sliding home, headfirst.
The wild thing struck again in the bottom of the ninth. Brett Williams walked, stole second and advanced when Lemond’s errant pickoff let him advance to third. Lemond hit the next batter and Williams scored on a squeeze bunt. A fielder’s choice that put runners on second and third with two outs set up the winning hit by Fincher.
Kubitza found a groove in the early innings, picking up eight strikeouts as his slider started catching the corners. But NC starter Carlos Rodon suffered a lapse. The NC ace allowed a run in the fourth when he hit Shane Hoelscher, and Leon Byrd and Skyler Ewing followed with singles. A leaping grab of a Hunter Kopycinski one-hopper by NC’s Grant Clyde stopped the Owls rally too early.
For a while, it looked like Rice’s Christian Stringer would be the game’s MVP. The senior second baseman tagged Rodon, the top-rated pitcher in college baseball, for a long solo home run in the fifth to tie it 2-2 and knocked in the Owls’ third run with a two-out, two-strike double in the top of the ninth.
Lemond replaced Kubitza when North Carolina threatened in the eighth. Turner bounced a liner off the Rice starter’s shoe to reach first, and Fincher lined a sharp single to right. Facing Lemond, NC catcher Brett Austin squared and bunted down the third base line, advancing the runners, but Owl first baseman Ewing stabbed a liner for the second out and Stringer at second pulled in a high hopper and threw to first to end the inning.
Rodon, who struck out nine Rice batters, was pulled in at the top of the ninth when the Owls’ Ewing and Kopycinski touched him for singles to set up Stringer’s go-ahead hit.
“It was a good game, and I thought we competed well,” said Rice Coach Wayne Graham. “Sometimes it goes that way.”
Game two takes place Sunday at North Carolina State at 3 p.m. Central time. A win by the Owls would force a game three Monday afternoon.