HOUSTON - It was a ballgame that spanned three hours and 26 minutes while lasting a league-record 11-innings, but for homestanding and top-seeded Rice it was worth every second as the Owls claimed a 5-4 walk-off win over No. 2 seed Southern Miss in the 2013 Conference USA Baseball Championship title game on Sunday afternoon at Reckling Park.
With the score knotted at 4-all and runners on the corner, left fielder Keenan Cook laced an RBI-single just over the outstretched arm of Golden Eagle second baseman Isaac Rodriguez to spark the Owls' celebration. In victory, Rice improves to 41-17 and earns C-USA's automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship. Southern Miss concludes its 2013 campaign with a record of 30-27.
The 2013 title is the fifth postseason league title since joining C-USA in 2006 and the ninth overall as Rice won the final Southwest Conference championship in 1996 and the Western Athletic Conference crowns from 1997-99 before the league ceased holding its tournament. The automatic bid ensures the Owls of their 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA Regionals and they will learn of their postseason destination on Monday when the NCAA Selection Committee announces the field of 64 on live on ESPN at 11 a.m.
The Owls trailed 4-3 after six and a half innings, Rice tied the score in the bottom of the seventh on a sacrifice fly off the bat of third baseman Shane Hoelscher and it remained tied over the next three frames. After Southern Miss went down in order in the top of the 11th, Owls' shortstop Ford Stainback reached first on a one-out fielders' choice grounder and went to third on a single by second baseman Christian Stringer in the ensuing at-bat. That set the stage for Cook, who was mobbed by his teammates beyond the first-base bag as the 2,057 fans on hand erupted.
Stringer was voted C-USA Championship Most Valuable Player after hitting .500 (7-for-14) with an RBI, a stolen base and five runs scored. Fellow Owls joining him on the All-Tournament Team were Hoelscher, centerfielder Leon Byrd as well as pitchers Austin Kubitza, John Simms and Jordan Stephens. Rounding out the squad were Southern Miss outfielders Blake Brown and Dillon Day, Golden Eagles hurler Jake Drehoff, Memphis catcher Keaton Aldridge, as well as East Carolina infielder Zach Houchins and designated hitter Drew Reynolds.
The Owls defense committed a season-high tying three errors which led to as many unearned runs for Southern Miss, but Rice was able to capitalize on 10 walks and a hit batsmen to come away on top. Reliever Zech Lemond (5-1) earned the victory out of the bullpen after allowing an unearned run on four hits and a walk while striking out a pair in a career-long 6.2-inning effort.
Both teams tallied seven hits with Southern Miss' Brown leading all players with three and Stainback pacing the Owls with two. Hoelscher drove in a pair of runs, adding a bases-loaded walk to plate the contest's first run in the home half of the initial inning to his game-winner 10 innings later.
Stainback opened the bottom of the first with a single through the right side of the infield, Stringer followed with a walk and Cook moved the pair into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Southern Miss starter Conor Fisk fell behind in the count to right fielder Michael Ratterree before eventually issuing an intentional walk, and Hoelscher and Byrd followed with walks of their own to stake the home team to a 2-0 advantage.
Rice padded its lead two innings later when Ratterree opened the frame with a double to right centerfield and scored on a double-play ball two hitters later.
Southern Miss took advantage of the Owls' first error of the contest in the top of the fourth as Day hit a leadoff single up the middle moved to second on a groundout to the pitcher and second baseman Isaac Rodriguez was hit by a pitch to put a pair of runners on base. Golden Eagles' right fielder Mason Robbins hit into a potential inning-ending double play, but Stringer's throw struck Rodriguez in the back, which not only allowed the runner to move to second but Day to score from 180 feet away, and Brown followed with a RBI-double down the left-field line to cut the deficit to 3-2.
The Golden Eagles tied the score an inning later when third baseman Bradley Roney was hit by a pitch, advanced the bases on a sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch and came around to touch the paystation on an RBI-single through the left side of the infield.
The team from Hattiesburg, Miss., put the first two runners on in the ensuing frame was Stainback mishandled consecutive groundballs hit straight at him to open the inning and USM first baseman Tim Lynch gave his team the lead with a sacrifice fly to right. That, however, would be the final tally of the day for the Golden Eagles as Lemond allowed just two hits and an intentional walk over the final five innings.