Good pitching, it's said, will always defeat good hitting. Thus it was that the Rice Owls on Saturday night found their bats facing the outstanding pitching of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.
The Owls had been as close to perfect in the C-USA Baseball Tournament as a team could be. The team was 3-0 and had yet to be challenged. They had reached double digits in the run column in each game. They had batted around at least once in each game. Their games against Houston on Thursday night (a 24-3 win) and Marshall on Friday afternoon (an 18-0 win) had ended early due to the mercy rule.
But the hitting hadn't really mattered because the Rice pitching had been locked in, holding down the opposing teams to few hits and fewer runs.
Southern Mississippi had struggled in the tournament, though they were 2-1. They were blown out by ECU on Thursday afternoon in a game that would have clinched them their pod if they had won. They backed into the Saturday title game when ECU lost to Memphis on a walk-off homer Friday afternoon in a game that could have clinched for ECU.
Then the Southern Miss players and fans had to sit through one of the most useless games in the history of useless games on Friday night, a 10-6 Southern Miss win over Houston. This game meant nothing to either team in that Houston had been eliminated when Rice kicked their ass 24-3 on Thursday and Southern Miss had already advanced.
But the C-USA rules dictated that the game must be played, and played it was, taking nearly five hours to get through thanks to two lightning/rain delays totaling nearly two hours.
So Saturday should have been another easy game for Rice. But there was a problem. Southern Miss had one of its best starters, Todd McInnis, ready to start Saturday while Rice had to go with Boogie Anagnostou, a guy who swung between starting and long relief throughout the year.
It was a match-up that had Rice coach Wayne Graham worried on Friday. And it was a match-up that rightfully worried him as Southern Miss scored four times in the first inning on Saturday night. Rice never recovered, losing the C-USA Tournament Championship to Southern Miss 7-4.
"They've got a good team," Graham said. "They deserved to win. More power to them."
On Saturday, Southern Miss was the better team. They played superior defense, had the better pitching, and got the key hits. These are all things Rice had excelled at in the tournament -- and in the month running up to the tournament -- but when it was needed most, Rice just couldn't deliver.
Anagnostou gave up four first-inning runs on just two hits. But two walks and a botched double play ball allowed Southern Miss to get three unearned runs. Rice's Rick Hague homered in the bottom of the first to make it 4-1, then Rice chased McInnis in the fifth, scoring three times to make it 5-4. But the Owls could get no closer as Southern Miss went to Scott Copeland, the tournament MVP, to close out the game.
Copeland pitched eight innings of four-hit, no-run ball on Wednesday, then came in and pitched 4.1 innings of no-hit ball on Saturday night to clinch the Southern Miss title.
"I think the story line right there is...the hottest team in the county, probably, swinging the bat, and our two guys, Todd and Scott, just came in and neutralized that," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "It started on the mound, and the energy just flowed to the offense and the defense."
Rice's Graham was equally impressed by Copeland, and stated that his pitching on just two days rest should not have been a problem for anybody.
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"He's 11-0," Graham said of Copeland. "There's a lot of folks who have trouble with him. He's got a good sinking fastball. To beat him, you really need about five left-handed batters, to tell you the truth. And he'll still pitch well, but you'll have a much better shot if you have a left-handed dominant because his ball sinks into the right-handed hitters hard."
Copeland was the kryptonite that finally shut down the Rice batters. And by shutting down the Rice batters on a night when Mike Ojala was not able to start, Southern Miss found the sure method for victory.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
Southern Miss's win clinched automatic entry into the NCAA baseball regionals, but Rice, one of the country's top 25 ranked teams coming into the game, will be advancing as well. The question is where Rice will go. Speculation from Rice officials, which should become reality today, is that they will go to either Austin, Oklahoma, or Fort Worth....the All-Tournament team was dominated by Rice Owls, with cameos from Southern Miss, Houston, ECU, and Memphis. The All-Tournament infield was Rice's Rick Hague, Anthony Rendon and Southern Miss's B.A. Vollmuth and Taylor Walker. It was an all Rice outfield of Michael Fuda, Chad Mozingo, and Steven Sultzbaugh. Catcher was Rice's Diego Seastrunk, and the DH was Houston's M.P. Cokinos. The pitching staff is manned by Southern Miss's Scott Copeland, Rice's Jared Rogers, ECU's Seth Maness, and Memphis's Brennon Martin.