The University of Memphis rallied for three runs in their final two innings to claim a 3-2 win over the Rice baseball team late Thursday night at the 2012 Conference USA Championship Thursday at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss.
With the win Memphis advances to Sunday’s Championship Final of the week-long tournament. Rice still has one final game to play in the pool’s round-robin schedule, but 2-0 Memphis clinched a spot in Sunday’s final game where the C-USA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Championship Tournament is on the line.
Playing as the visiting team at the neutral site, the Owls were in control early and jumped on the scoreboard for a pair of runs in the top of the first inning. Ford Stainback drew a leadoff walk and Christian Stringer followed with a double down the right field line. A Memphis fielding error on the play, however, allowed both men to take an extra 90 feet with Stainback scoring on the play and Stringer reaching third. J.T. Chargois singled through the left side for a quick 2-0 advantage.
Rice sophomore right-hander Austin Kubitza proved to be in a pitching groove. The Colleyville, Tex., kept Memphis off the scoreboard for the first six innings, scattering three hits and walk while striking out six.
A Rice fielding error to start the seventh gave Memphis a boost, and the Tigers turned the miscue into two unearned runs. Derrick Thomas reached on an error to lead off the inning and he scored on a one-out single by Bryce Beeler. The Owls should have been out of the inning by the time Keaton Aldridge doubled to left to score Beeler and make the score 2-2.
The Owls were in strong position to get one of the runs back in the top of the eighth after a leadoff double, but a Memphis escaped from danger with a double-play after the Owls failed to tag-up on a sharply-hit ball to center field.
Memphis rallied for a run in the bottom of the eighth on three-straight singles to move in front 3-2. In the top of the ninth Keenan Cook gave the Owls some hope with a one-out pinch-hit and steal of second base to move into scoring position. Memphis ended the threat to hang-on for the 3-2 final.
Coming out on the short-end of scores never sits well with Rice head coach Wayne Graham, but with his eye on the bigger picture he pointed to a silver-lining. A repeat pitching performances like the one Kubitza displayed Thursday is going to make the Owls a tough customer in any NCAA Regional. In his final line, Kubitza worked 7.2 innings, allowing only one earned run with one walk and eight strikeouts.
“The good news is that Kubitza threw well,” coach Graham said. “We’ll have a chance to beat anybody with that kind of stuff. Kubitza was great. He didn’t do anything wrong. He pitched great.
“We had a fielding error and a base-running mistake,” he added. “That happens at every level. We want to play a good ball game Saturday and get us ready to play in the playoffs.”
The Owls dropped to 40-16 overall. Memphis improved to 31-26 on the year.
Pool play in the tournament continues through Saturday (May 26). The Owls are off on Friday, before returning to face No. 4 seed Southern Miss on Saturday at 7 pm.