Update: This was updated with a summary of games, which you can find after the jump.
When you're the fourth seed in a four-team regional, nothing but fodder for the bigger boys on their way to Omaha, it's not about winning the games. Winning the games would be awesome, but being huge underdogs in a strange ballpark far, far away from the home fans, it's about being competitive. About showing you belong.
The NCAA baseball championships started this past weekend with Rice hosting a round of regional games. The hoopla centered on a Friday afternoon matchup of former rivals Texas and Texas A&M -- a matchup that disappointed the crowd of 6,603 maroon and burnt orange clad fans because of UT running away early with the game. And it was kind of old hat to Rice, a school that's used to hosting regionals and being the top seed in the region. But lost in the shuffle was the team from Fairfax, Virginia playing its first ever baseball games in the state of Texas.
The George Mason Patriots (34-22) were the champions of the Atlantic 10. The Patriots hadn't made the NCAA regionals since 2009 and had won only one of 13 previous regional games. It was also the first time the Patriots would ever face the Owls, Longhorns, and Aggies. They were the sacrificial lambs sent out to sate the appetites of the fans until the big boys could play each other.
George Mason may have been the first team eliminated from the regional, but the Patriots came out with one plan in mind. To prove that they belonged on the same field with the big boys. The Patriots might not have won any games. But Rice sure had to work for a 7-2 win on Friday night -- George Mason was ahead 2-1 in the eighth inning before starter Jared Gaynor tired and let Rice get to him -- and while the Aggies were in front the entire game on Saturday, jumping off a 3-0 lead in the first inning, George Mason didn't give in, stranding 14 runners and running up the pitch counts on the Aggie pitchers. It wasn't until the eighth inning, when the Aggies scored twice to make the score 7-2, that the Aggies appeared to put the game away -- and George Mason still didn't give in, putting two on with one out in the bottom of the ninth before losing 7-3.
"The moment definitely wasn't too big for us," George Mason coach Bill Brown told the media Friday night. "We were very comfortable from the first pitch of the game that we belonged here (the regional) and the stadium. It's always hard for us, because we're always at a disadvantage in these situations. We're always playing in someone else's home turf, in front of their home crowd with the energy in the ballpark behind them, so it's up to us to create our own energy. And we did that."
Rice's Reckling Park was packed for the game with over 4,300 Rice fans for the Rice/George Mason Friday night matchup that was delayed for an hour-and-a-half due to rain. And there were 4243 Aggie fans in the park on Saturday -- for another game that was delayed for over 90 minutes.But the Patriots definitely weren't phased by the spotlight, and made Rice and Texas A&M work much harder than they should have.
"Well (Friday night's starter Jared Graynor) did a very good job and I think we were very fortunate to come away with a win because he was mixing four different pitches with good control," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "A lot of people think it is easy to handle that guy, but the last time I checked he came in with an ERA that was in the mid ones or something like that. He is tough and they played a relatively clean game, so we were fortunate to win."
George Mason didn't beat itself. The Patriots didn't do what so many mid-major teams do. They didn't appear to press. They didn't lose composure. They might have lost to Rice, but they made Rice work for the win, and they proved they belonged on the same field with the big boys.
So let the big boy stories be about the Horns and the Aggies and the Owls and the rain and the lightning. But for just a moment, let's shine a bit of the spotlight on the George Mason Patriots.
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QUICK REGIONAL SUMMARY:
Texas easily handled A&M on Friday afternoon, getting the 8-1 win. Rice came from behind on Friday night to defeat George Mason 7-2. The Aggies defeated George Mason Saturday afternoon.
Rice struggled to defeat George Mason on Friday night, relying on outstanding pitching to stay in the game until busting out late. So it's no surprise that Rice struggled against UT on Saturday night -- the incessant rain and lightning delayed the start of the game until 9:46 pm, and it didn't end until after 1:00 am on Sunday morning when UT got the extra innings win. Rice burst out to a big lead on the Aggies on Sunday afternoon, but the bullpen and defense faltered, and A&M eliminated the Owls from the tournament in another extra inning affair. The Aggies, who looked overmatched in the Friday game with UT, then defeated UT 3-2 last night to force a deciding game tonight at 6:05 at Reckling Park.
In Baton Rouge, the Cougars came from behind to defeat Bryant on Friday before losing to LSU on Saturday night. But the Cougars defeated Southeastern Louisiana yesterday afternoon, then topped LSU last night. UH and LSU will play a winner-take-all game in Baton Rouge tonight.