Pitching powers Rice
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Rice 3, Sam Houston State 2
HOUSTON -- Veteran Rice coach Wayne Graham thought his team needed a little friendly persuasion after a narrow escape in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Rice's slumping offense sputtered again Friday night, but produced just enough offense to enable the Owls to eke out a 3-2 victory over Sam Houston State -- their first triumph in two weeks.
"I guess that shows why we recruit so many pitchers," Graham said. "You can win games with pitching because we did little else. Somehow we were able to scratch three runs. I'll take it."
The Owls are averaging only 2.7 runs and hitting a collective .215 in their last three games. In their first 54 games, Rice averaged 7.5 runs and hit .311.
"We did have some words after the game that might be encouragement," Graham deadpanned after the Owls produced seven hits. "Constructive criticism."
Fortunately for the Owls (43-13), strong pitching enabled them to persevere through their slumbering offensive attack. Ryan Berry had another strong start, scattering seven hits and an earned run in six innings to delight a sellout crowd of 4,734 at Reckling Park.
The victory enabled Rice to claim its 10th straight NCAA regional victory. The Owls have gone 3-0 in their last three regionals and are gunning for their third straight trip to the College World Series.
"We know we'll have to play better to go somewhere," Berry said. "But getting that first one really helps."
Sam Houston coach Mark Johnson said that Rice's soaring confidence helped the Owls win their second game in three tries against the Bearkats (37-24).
"They've got a really solid, good ball club," Johnson said. "They always have a very legitimate swagger, not an arrogance, but a swagger. They believe and they'll give you a pretty good shot."
• A strong three-inning relief stint by Bobby Bell wrapped up Rice's victory. Bell retired all nine hitters he faced, striking out one.
Bell made only one mistake, hanging a fat changeup that Ryan Trevino blasted to the warning track before it was caught by Rice left fielder Aaron Luna in the eighth inning.
"He hit it well, but this is a tough-hitting ballpark," Bell said. "It got held up in the wind and Aaron made a good play on it."
It was the longest relief stint of the season for Bell, who had joked with Graham about wanting to join the starting rotation in recent weeks. That bravado shows developing confidence for Bell, who missed most of last season after sustaining a season-ending arm injury on opening day.
"I felt great," Bell said. "I'm very fortunate how the season has turned out for me so far."
• Bell's strong finish enabled Rice to push its record to 36-1 in games where the Owls lead after seven innings. Graham joked that he didn't want to consider where his team would have been Friday without the strong bullpen effort.
"I was saying to myself if they had gotten a third run, we might be here until midnight the way we were hitting," Graham said. "But low-scoring games should favor a strong bullpen."
• Bell's strong relief outing was important for another reason. It enabled Graham to save left-handed relief ace Cole St. Clair, who briefly warmed up but sat down during the ninth inning.
"We needed to rest some of that bullpen," Graham said. "To have a quality reliever like Cole and not use him was great."
• The strong Rice pitching effort ruined a complete-game performance by Sam Houston State freshman Dallas Gallant, who allowed three runs in the first four innings but handcuffed the Owls on only two hits during the rest of the game.
"He mixed it up well with his fastball and slider and kept us off balance that way," Rice shortstop Rick Hague said.
• Experience gleaned from pitching in the tournament last season helped Berry in his work Friday night.
"Coach Graham puts us in the pressure situations all the time," Berry said. "I knew what we had to do and luckily, it ended up well for us."