Walking from the Rice clubhouse to the Rice dugout, right past the trainer's room, you pass a dry erase board. There was a message on that board Saturday afternoon. A message reading "Plunder the Pirates. Go Owls." And if one word can be applied to describe what the Rice Owls did to C-USA foe East Carolina Pirates, then plunder is, indeed, that word.
The Owls have been part of a tight race for first place in C-USA, and coming into this weekend's series, the Owls were on top of second-place East Carolina by a half game. But after a 20-3 victory on Friday, a 3-2 come-from-behind victory on Saturday, and a 11-9 final on Sunday that saw Rice coming back from a 5-1 fourth-inning deficit then holding on after giving up four ninth-inning runs, the Owls are safely atop the C-USA standings as they head into a break for finals.
"Every game is really important at this point," hitting machine Jimmy Comerota said yesterday. "It makes the break a little bit easier, and I think everybody is going to be a little bit more relaxed when they go to the library tonight to study. I think all that is psychology, if nothing else, real big, but every game that we play, especially in conference at this point, is going to be critical."
East Carolina was never in Friday's game. The Owls took a 3-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back as a lineup that had recently been shuffled -- Rick Hague moving from shortstop to DH, Abe Gonzalez moving from the bullpen to first base, and Comerota moving from first to short -- fired on all cylinders, led by Comerota who was four-for-five with a homer, three runs, and four RBI.
Hague was four-for-six with a homer, three runs, and three RBI.
"I think that's what [Coach Wayne] Graham had in his mind [with the lineup changes]," Hague said. "I could just focus on one thing at one time. Everyone knows that shortstop has been like a dark spot here for me lately, so just being able to get away from it, and maybe just focus on hitting, it made a lot of things easier."
Lost in all of Rice's scoring was another superb pitching performance from Tyler Wall, who held the hot-hitting Pirates to two earned runs in seven innings while striking out a season high of nine batters.
"He obviously had good stuff, because that's one of the best hitting teams around," Graham said. "You look at their stats, and they're one of the best. And they don't strike out a lot either. So I thought he used his fastball on the inside part of the plate maybe better than he ever has tonight. And it shocked them. They weren't looking for a lefty to pop them inside. That sets up everything else."
Saturday's game was a quick-paced, thrilling pitcher's duel that saw Rice win the game when stud third baseman Anthony Rendon hit a two-out, three-run homer to put Rice up 3-2 and get the win.
But if not for the pitching of Mike Ojala, making his best start since off-season Tommy John surgery, the Owls might not have been in position for that win.
Ojala, who didn't get the win, went seven innings, giving up only one earned run while striking out a career-high East Carolina batters.
"He's there," Graham said of Ojala. "He can win a regional game right now. He could get better. If he gets any better, it's something, because he can win right now with what he's throwing. There's not many teams that are better hitting teams than East Carolina out there."
Ojala has 16 strikeouts in his last two starts, and any doubts and concerns from the surgery are finally escaping his mind.
"It feels like a long time that I haven't been able to just go out there and not have to worry about anything," he said Saturday. "I've never thrown a complete game at Rice, so that's a goal this year, and I feel like my stuff's good enough to do that right now."
But as April draws to a close, the star of the month has been Comerota.
Comerota, who was hitting .167 in mid-March, has been on a tear and after yesterday, he's now hitting .348 with 28 RBI, an on-base percentage nearing .500, and four homers. While DH Michael Fuda's homers in the seventh and eighth inning guaranteed Rice's 11-9 win, it was Comerota's three-run double in the fourth that tied the game at 5-5 and put Rice on the track to the win in a day where all of the Rice pitchers had problems stopping the ECU batters.
"I felt like I've been swinging well all season," Comerota said after yesterday's win. "I went through a slow start last year where I really didn't feel good at the plate, and this year, I felt good. I just needed them to fall."
And despite the numerous hot bats in the Rice lineup, including Rendon and outfielder Jeremy Rathjen, Graham credits Comerota with being the fuel of the Rice offense.
"One thing that has caused a lot of that to happen, I think Jimmy Comerota needs a lot of credit," Graham said. "Because he's been giving us everything we needed all of the time. Other guys stepped up [Sunday], obviously. But actually, Jimmy has been a leader with the bat and getting the job done."
So plunder the Pirates did, and as the Owls head into a break that won't see them play again until next Wednesday when they host TSU, they can sit back and reflect on a hot month of April which has seen their overall record improve to 26-16 and their conference record improve to 11-4.
Their nearest conference competitor is now Marshall, who sits two games behind Rice.
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