The scoreboard at Cougar Field appeared to suffer a malfunction last night. There was "one" run showing for Rice in the first-inning column, yet under the total runs column, the number was "11."
The problem was that the top of the first inning had just ended, and Rice had just finished batting. But there was no malfunction. The problem was a rather simple one: the scoreboard wasn't equipped for double-digit runs in the inning column.
So while the Cougars could feel happy that the scoreboard wasn't malfunctioning, what they couldn't feel happy about was that, once again, the baseball team was malfunctioning.
The Cougars needed to win this game to advance to the C-USA title game on Saturday night. But Cougar starter William Kankel couldn't make it out of the first inning, and with Rice ace Mike Ojala on the mound with the 11-0 lead, the Cougars chances were as nonexistent as the Astros title chances.
The Cougars had the early momentum as Kankel got Rice's leadoff batter, Chad Mozingo, to fly out to center. Then Rick Hague singled, Jeremy Rathjen walked, Anthony Rendon singled in Hague, Diego Seastrunk walked, Michael Ratterree singled home two runs, and Jimmy Comerota flied out to center for the second out.
But things were just starting. Michael Fuda got an infield single, then Steven Sultzbaugh singled home two runs to make the score 4-0 and chase Kankel from the game.
Matt Creel then moved from first base to the pitcher's mound, but the damage was done, the Rice scoring finishing with Rendon's grand slam off of Creel.
"It's fun. You want to keep tagging on," Rendon said. "Your Houston rivals. Then again, it's in the back of your mind that you can't get big-headed. You've got to keep going out there, and going out there."
By the time the mercy rule ended the game after seven innings, the final score was 24-3 and Rice was the holder of several conference tournament records: most runs scored in an inning, 11; most runs scored in a game, 24, and their six homers tied the tourney record for most in a game.
The record for that, of course, held by Rice, who set it in the 2007 tournament against Memphis. And in that disastrous first inning, Rice sent 15 batters to the plate. Rendon had five RBI, and Hague, Rathjen, and Rendon had all scored twice
"We made mistakes, they pounded the ball," Houston Cougars coach Rayner Noble said after the game. "I say from an offensive standpoint they're [Rice] rolling about as well as they can roll now."
The Owls are now the team controlling their own destiny. A win today over Marshall makes Rice 3-0 for the tourney and sends them into the Saturday title game.
But a Rice loss to Marshall means that Rice could miss the final, depending on, of course, how the Cougars play today. Yeah, it's complicated, which is why Rice wants to take care of business and just win the game.
"We're sweeping it," Ojala said after the game. "We're steamrolling through this tournament, and we're steaming through the Regionals and so on. We're feeling good right now."
The Owls should be feeling good. The offense has been firing on all cylinders in the tournament, and the pitching has been solid. Rice catcher Diego Seastrunk had mentioned on Wednesday that the important thing was that the team keep its focus, and even though they had an 11-0 lead before the Cougars had even come up to bat, they were still worried about focus.
Owls coach Wayne Graham said the key to his team's recent play is that they're in the right mind set for getting through the rest of the season.
"They seem to be able to focus better now than they have all year," he said. "And focus is what it's about. Addressing the strike zone, hitting the ball when you get a good pitch to hit, and taking it when you can't, that's really the secret."
As for the Cougars, their C-USA tournament hopes are dashed, as are any hopes of making the NCAA Regionals. But they've got to play Southern Miss tonight, and while the game ultimately doesn't matter to the Cougars, it could matter to several other teams in the tournament.
If Marshall should defeat Rice, and if Houston can win, then it would be Marshall, not Rice, advancing to the championship game. And if Memphis beats ECU, then Southern Miss is going to be playing the Cougars for the chance to advance to Saturday's game.
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"We've got to get ready for tomorrow," Noble said, "and just put this behind us and get ready to roll."
Of course, if the Cougars are going to roll, they might need their pitching staff to show up. And their offense.
SOME MISCELLENOUS GAME NOTES:
Jared Rogers gets the start for Rice tonight, and Eric Brooks will probably get the start for Houston....Rice plays Marshall at 3 p.m., and Houston plays Southern Miss at 7 p.m.. The early game is Memphis versus ECU at 11 a.m....Southern Miss, with the chance to advance, instead lost yesterday to ECU 8-1; thus, if ECU defeats Memphis, it advances to Saturday's game. If Memphis wins, then Southern Miss will need to defeat Houston to advance....If Marshall defeats Rice, then Marshall might be able to advance instead of Rice if Houston loses. If Houston wins and Marshall wins, then it will probably be Rice that advances. But as of 10:26 last night, C-USA officials were still trying to figure out all of the scenarios still in play for Saturday's game.