Loss to North Carolina State in 17 innings is longest game in Super Regional history
It was a patience-shredding nail-biter and ultimately a heartbreaker Sunday as the Rice Owls lost the longest game in NCAA Super Regional baseball history 5-4 to North Carolina State after 17 innings.
As in the Game 1 loss Saturday, Rice failed to hold the Wolfpack at bay in the ninth. The Owls seemed in charge with a 4-1 lead, but NC State tied it in the top of the inning when Zech Lemond, who entered the game in the seventh in relief of Jordan Stephens, grazed leadoff batter Jake Armstrong.
With one out, Lemond gave up a single to Trea Turner. Jake Fincher, the hero for NC State in Game 1, slapped a liner down the first base line that caromed off the wall in front of the Owls’ bullpen and got past a diving Michael Ratterree in right, scoring Armstrong and Turner and letting Fincher reach third. After a liner to first for the second out, Tarran Senay jumped on Lemond’s first pitch for a double to deep right, scoring Fincher to tie the game at 4.
By then, the Wolfpack had already thrown six pitchers at the Owls; three more were to take the mound before the game ended many hours later.
The Owls used only three. Lemond gave way to John Simms with one out in the top of the 10th with a runner on second, and Simms promptly gave up a single off his glove. But he took care of business almost immediately, stabbing a line drive by the next batter and flipping to first to double off the runner.
Having shut down the rally, Simms settled in for what amounted to a nearly complete game performance. He threw 102 pitches, struck out eight and dominated until the Wolfpack touched him for a run in the top of the 17th. Senay hit a ground-ball single to right to start the inning, and with one out he wheeled all the way around on a single to right center by Brett Williams.
The long ball was the Owls’ friend in the early innings with Stringer’s two dingers and another solo shot to lead the seventh by Michael Aquino.
However much Rice’s three pitchers distinguished themselves, it was a bullet from centerfield in the seventh that gave the Owls a jolt of energy in what was surely the best play of the game.
The lone Wolfpack run sent Stephens to the showers in the top of the inning. NC State put a runner on when Armstrong pounded a liner off Lemond’s glove for an infield hit. The next two batters singled to load the bases with none out, and a fielder’s choice brought Armstrong home.
That brought Lemond to the mound and set the stage for Byrd’s strike from center.
Byrd bolted in to snare a pop fly by Brett Austin and fired a rope to freshman catcher Hunter Kopycinski, who blocked and tagged the Wolfpack’s Logan Ratledge with room to spare.
Minutes later, Aquino’s homer gave the Owls a two-run lead again, and Rice added another in the bottom of the eighth on a Keenan Cook double, a line drive single by Shane Hoelscher and a squeeze bunt single by Byrd.
Rice threatened with a bit of small ball in the bottom of the ninth. Aquino led off with a full-count single to left. Ewing showed bunt but waited out reliever Ryan Wilkins and drew a walk. Kopycinski laid a perfect sacrifice bunt down the third base line to advance the runners. Ford Stainback bounced out to short and the Wolfpack put Stringer on first with an intentional walk. That set up Cook; he popped a bunt to NC State’s seventh pitcher, Grant Sasser, who leaped to make the grab and end the rally.
Rice ends its season with a final record of 44-20.
Under the direction of head coach Wayne Graham, who has been at the helm 22 years, Rice baseball advanced to NCAA postseason play for the 19th consecutive year. The Owls also reached the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament fo the 10th time since 1999, when the format was first adopted. The blue and 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, five Rice players were selected for the 2013 Major League Baseball draft.