THE GAME AT A GLANCE
Turning Point: Down by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning, Miami had runners at the corners with one out and its best hitter at the plate in the form of Jon Jay (.502 OBP). Jay checked his swing on a two-strike pitch, but third base umpire Joe Burleson punched him out on the appeal. Miami coach Jim Morris argued the call and was ejected, and the moment deflated the Hurricanes' comeback hopes.
The Hero: Graham gave first-team All-America closer Cole St.Clair his second start of the season, and the sophomore lefthander responded by holding a hot Miami offense to three hits and one unearned run over five innings of work.
You May Not Have Noticed: Miami's Jemile Weeks went 0-for-Saturday, but returned to his NCAA tournament hot streak with a 4-for-5 night from the leadoff spot. He reached base in his final four plate appearances of the night and is now 17-for-33 since regionals began.
OMAHA--Rice has won 56 games this year, but they didn't win too many like this.
The Owls held off Miami 3-2 on Monday despite shaky play from their usually rock-steady infield defense. And they got the win by using their closer (Cole St.Clair) to start the game, a starter (Bobby Bell) in middle relief, and a setup man (Bryce Cox) to close.
It was a strange formula for success, but it worked--in part because Miami was equally sloppy. The Hurricanes almost matched Rice's three errors with two of their own, leading to a pair of unearned runs for the Owls. And Miami could not capitalize with runners in scoring position, stranding 11.
"The bottom line is neither one of us played very good defense, but they got the hits when it counted, and that's why they won the game," Miami coach Jim Morris said. "They got some big hits, we left too many guys on base."
Twice the Hurricanes (42-23) loaded the bases--in the third and seventh innings--but they managed just a pair of runs, both thanks to Rice defensive lapses. Cleanup hitter Danny Valencia hit into an inning-ending 5-2-3 double play in the third, and he would have hit into another in the seventh.
But Owls shortstop Brian Friday botched the front end of the would-be twin killing, and Rice (57-11) only got a force at second base, allowing Miami's second run to score. The next batter, Dennis Raben, bounced out harmlessly to end the threat.
Valencia had a chance to redeem himself with runners at the corners and two outs in the ninth inning, after Jemile Weeks singled and reached third on a single by Tommy Giles and Jon Jay struck out on a controversial check swing. But Valencia went down swinging as well on an 85 mph slider from Cox to end the game.
"I think getting those two hitters out showed remarkable character, and obviously remarkable stuff," Rice coach Wayne Graham said about Cox striking out Jay and Valencia. "That last slider was the reason that I didn't have much of a career in the big leagues--I couldn't hit it either."
Certainly, the Rice pitchers deserve credit for making big pitches in big spots. St.Clair allowed just three hits and two walks while striking out six over five innings. He was making just his second start of the season, and his 92 pitches were a career high.
"I thought it was really remarkable that he pitched that well in his first start considering that we usually have a great defense and he didn't have it today," Graham said.
St.Clair has piled up 11 saves and a 1.82 ERA on the season, but lately it has been Cox finishing games for the Owls. He pitched 2 2/3 innings to pick up his fourth save, just two days after pitching 2 2/3 innings to get a win in relief against Georgia. His emergence in the bullpen allowed Graham to start the lefthander St.Clair against a Miami lineup that features several dangerous lefthanded hitters.
St.Clair (7-2), who pitched 5 2/3 innings of relief in a super-regional win against Oklahoma last weekend, is beginning to get used to the larger workloads.
"It's a feeling I haven't had in a long time, but after I get past the third inning, I kind of get my second wind," St.Clair said. "It's just a matter of once I get my leg up--I've got that huge leg kick--once I get that up, it's all downhill from there."
It was all downhill for the Owls after the first inning, when they got two runs against Miami starter Danny Gil (4-3), who settled down nicely after that to go a season-high 6 2/3 innings. Tyler Henley started the game off with a leadoff home run to right field that ended up looming large in a game where runs were hard to come by. Rice scrapped together its last two runs using a total of four sacrifices.
In the end, Rice did enough of those little things while Miami did not, and that is why the Hurricanes will have to fight to stay alive Tuesday against Oregon State, while Rice awaits the winner on Wednesday.