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Rice wins 2011 Conference USA Title 4-3 over Houston

Robert Burns once penned the infamous phrase, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” For the Rice University baseball team, however, that was not the case as the Owls defeated cross-town rival University of Houston, 4-3, in a 10-inning thriller in the 2011 Conference USA Baseball Championship title game sponsored by Trustmark Saturday night at Trustmark Park.

With a runners at first and second with nobody out, Owls head coach Wayne Graham signaled for a bunt in an attempt to move the pair into scoring position. Catcher Craig Manuel misread the sign, and ripped an RBI-single into right field to give Rice its fourth C-USA postseason championship in six years as a league member.

In victory, the Owls improve to 41-19 and earn the conference’s automatic bid to next weekend’s NCAA Tournament. It will be Rice’s 17th consecutive trip to the NCAA Regionals, all of which have come under Graham’s direction. Houston, meanwhile, concluded the 2011 season with a 27-32 record.

“When you miss a sign, make it work,” Graham said of the situation after the game. “I thought we played well. I thought we hit a lot of balls hard, and we just couldn’t seem to score. (Houston pitcher Jared) Ray pitched a great game, a very brave game tonight. We hung in there and won. You have to love Tyler Duffey did. He looked like a major leaguer out there tonight.”

Duffey was named the tournament’s most valuable player after striking out eight and holding opponents to just six singles and a .188 batting average in two appearances and 9.0 shutout innings out of the bullpen. Against the Cougars, he came in for starter Matthew Reckling to start the sixth and gave up just two hits while fanning seven in 4.2 frames.

The game marked just the second time in C-USA Baseball Championship history that the title game extended past the scheduled nine innings, and Houston had a chance to break a 3-3 deadlock in the top of the 10th as catcher John Cannon opened the inning with a single to left and moved up 90 feet on a sacrifice bunt off the bat of leadoff hitter Ryan Still. Following a fly-ball out to right off the bat of centerfielder Landon Appling, Rice called on closer Tony Cingrani to put the fire out.

Cougars right fielder Caleb Ramsey put a good swing on an 0-1 pitch and hit a sinking liner to left. Owls outfielder Keenan Cook, however, dove at the last second and scooped the ball up with the fingertips of his glove to keep it a tied ballgame.

Rice made the missed opportunity hurt in the home half of the stanza as designated hitter Anthony Rendon clubbed a leadoff doubled deep to left and Michael Ratterree was intentionally walked with nobody out to set up Manuel’s game-winning at-bat.

Shortstop Derek Hamilton was the lone Rice player to tally a multiple-hit outing, going 2-for-2 with a walk, a run scored and an RBI. Lost in the Owls’ win was a stellar pitching performance by Ray. Making just his fifth start in as many appearances on Saturday, Ray went eight-plus innings where he gave up three runs (one earned) on eight hits and three walks while striking out four.

Houston’s impressive run through the C-USA Championship continued early in the championship game on as second baseman Ryan Still opened the contest with a single, advanced the bases on an error and a sacrifice bunt, and scored on a wild pitch by Rice starter Matthew Reckling.

The Cougars added to their lead with a pair of runs in the top of the third as left fielder Joel Ansley sparked a two-out rally with a walk, stole second and moved to third on a wild pitch. From there, third baseman Codey Morehouse ripped an RBI-triple to the base of the wall in center to plate Ansley, and scored during the play when Rice second baseman Michael Ratterree’s relay to throw sailed over the dugout and into the seating area.

Ray, meanwhile, was cruising along and retired the first and third batters of the fifth inning while allowing singles to Derek Hamilton and first baseman J.T. Chargois. Ray appeared to wiggle off the hook with a ground ball to short, but Chase Jensen’s throw to first pulled M.P. Cokinos off the bag to allow Hamilton to score. One at-bat later, Ray got designated hitter Michael Ratterree to hit a grounder to third, but the ball went through the wickets and into left field, and Chargois scored from 90 feet away to make it 3-2.

The Owls tied the score in the bottom of the sixth as centerfielder Michael Fuda hit a one-out double to right central, advanced to third on a ground ball to short, and scored on a Hamilton RBI-single to right.

With the win, Rice extends its consecutive-game winning streak over intra-city rival Houston to fifteen games.

Rice, which is expected to host a Regional, will learn its postseason fate over the next two days. The NCAA will release the 16 host sites for the 2011 NCAA Tournament on Sunday at 2:30 (CDT) and the field of 64 will be released by the selection committee live on ESPN on Monday at 11:30 (CDT).

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