OMAHA–While Louisville dazzled early in the opening game of the 2007 College World Series, Rice brought the house down with the grand finale.
The Owls overcame a 10-4 deficit with 11 unanswered runs in the final four innings of a 15-10 victory. It was a loud statement by a beleaguered Rice offense that entered the day averaging just 4.4 runs per game in the postseason and riding a 23-inning scoreless streak in Omaha, dating back to last year.
"Just a magnificent effort for our guys, and I couldn't be prouder of them," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "They came in here with a stigma, 23 innings, but I knew they could hit. They sure proved that today."
Rice's CWS scoreless streak reached 25 2/3 innings before Danny Lehmann singled home Jared Gayhart with two outs in the third inning. The Owls already trailed 5-0 at that point after Chris Dominguez' three-run homer in the top of the third, but getting that first run seemed to loosen Rice up and get the offense flowing. The next three batters followed with singles as the Owls cut the deficit to 5-4.
"I was thinking, 'Just get the run in,'" Lehmann said of his single to right field. "Obviously first and third, two outs, I was looking for a pitch I could hit. He threw a pitch inside on the handle, but it fell in for a hit, which was nice to break the curse, or whatever you want to call it."
Louisville kept the pressure on, as Logan Johnson's second home run of the game highlighted the Cardinals' four-run fifth inning, but the Owls capitalized upon a botched potential double-play ball by shortstop Chris Cates to score three runs in the bottom of the frame. Instead of being out of the innings with a 10-4 lead intact, Louisville led 10-7, and it wouldn't score again, squandering a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity in the eighth.
"Momentum, that is what they had," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "We couldn't get it back. We concentrate on when our opponent scores, to bounce back and when we score, to hold them to a zero in the inning. We couldn't slow them down momentum-wise. They had it, and we couldn't get it back."
Rice's superior bullpen was its key to holding that momentum. Both starting pitchers were gone–Rice freshman Ryan Berry was chased in the third, and Louisville's Zack Pitts in the fifth–and the Owls have gotten more consistent work from their bullpen in the NCAA tournament than the Cardinals have.
Rice righthander Scott Lonergan slowed the Cardinals down in the middle innings, holding them to a run over 2 2/3, and lefty Bobby Bramhall (7-2) finished the job to earn the victory, shutting them out on just one hit over the final two frames. Louisville's bullpen, meanwhile, faltered, as closer Trystan Magnuson gave up six runs (five earned) in Rice's game-winning eighth-inning rally. The Blue Jays' supplemental first-round pick had given up nine runs all year.
"They played clean baseball, they stuffed us late in the game when they had to," McDonnell said. "They did more than we did, and they deserved to win, but I'd be lying if I said sitting up here that we don't feel like we just let one get away."
Louisville is a veteran team, and McDonnell will lean on his 10 seniors to get everyone refocused for Sunday's elimination game, but today Rice's postseason experience loomed large. It was a good day for hitting, with the wind blowing out, and Rice seized the opportunity to silence those who doubted its offense. After scoring just nine runs in four CWS games in 2006, the Owls plated 15 in the final six innings today.
One other thing to keep an eye on is the Rice pitching staff. Graham summoned junior righthander Matt Langwell to replace Berry in the third inning, and Langwell threw 35 pitches over 1 2/3 innings. Graham said there is still a chance that Langwell could get the start in Sunday's winner's bracket game if Mississippi State beats North Carolina today, but it's more likely that Savery will get the nod. If the lefthanded-heavy Tar Heels win, Savery will definitely make the start.
Conference USA pitcher of the year Ryne Tacker will not be a consideration. Graham said Thursday that the senior righthander will likely miss the CWS with a stress fracture in his forearm.