Owls Sitting Pretty

GREENVILLE, N.C.–Top-seeded Rice is in the catbird seat here at the Conference USA tournament after topping Memphis 7-5 in the winner’s bracket. The victory earned the Owls a day off tomorrow before resuming play Saturday against the winner of the Memphis-Central Florida loser’s bracket game tomorrow. Rice coach Wayne Graham said his plan is to hold back lefthander Joe Savery until the Owls face their first elimination game, which means Graham will hand the ball to righthander Chris Kelley on Saturday and save Savery for Sunday. The idea is to keep Savery’s bat fresh, and the plan is working nicely so far, as Savery launched an opposite-field home run in the first inning to give Rice an early 2-0 lead.

The hard-hitting Tigers answered with five in the bottom of the first against senior righthander Ryne Tacker, who had to leave the game in the middle of the inning with soreness in his forearm. This is a major concern for Rice, because Tacker missed all of 2006 with a stress fracture in the same spot, just below the elbow. Rice has come to rely upon Tacker, the pitcher of the year in Conference USA after going 9-1, 2.41. Graham removed him in the middle of a count after he threw an 82 mph fastball–not good.

The Owls were OK without him today, as junior righty Matt Langwell sparkled in relief of Tacker. Langwell allowed just three hits while striking out nine and walking one over 7 1/3 scoreless innings of work before handing the ball to closer Cole St.Clair.

“I knew I had to attack the strike zone,” Langwell said. “I’m starting to get into a groove out there and that’s easy to do on a team with this much talent . . . I was hitting my spots, which is always a good feeling. Shutting down that team is hard to do. We’ve had trouble with them, so I just went out there and tried to throw all the strikes I could, stay low in the zone and keep the ball down.”

St.Clair looked decent in his scoreless, hitless inning, issuing a leadoff walk but then inducing a double play to erase the runner. St.Clair, who missed most of the season with biceps tendonitis, threw his fastball in the 87-90 mph range and mixed in a few 75-76 mph curveballs. He had little trouble nailing down Rice’s 20th consecutive CUSA victory, the longest streak in league history, eclipsing ECU’s string of 19 straight in 2004.

The late game is about to start, and it figures to be a good one. East Carolina and Southern Mississippi are likely competing with each other for a No. 2 seed in a regional, and the team that wins tonight will have the inside track. Though Southern Miss is riding an 11-game winning streak into today’s action, ECU might have the advantage because the Golden Eagles will be without their best player. First baseman Trey Sutton, who is hitting .368/.459/.569 with eight home runs, left yesterday’s win against Alabama-Birmingham with a dislocated kneecap. Southern Miss coach Corky Palmer said Sutton has a strained patella and is likely out for the rest of the weekend. Palmer said there is heavy swelling in the knee but no structural damage.