Rice pitcher Mike Ojala summarized a night of frustration for the Rice pitchers during which they let a two-run lead slip away with one big hit, one pitching change and one inning that made the shift in momentum palpable in Alex Box Stadium. A six-run fifth inning, highlighted by Ryan Schimpf's three-run home run off Taylor Wall's second pitch, sent the Owls' bullpen into a tailspin and revealed what could be the team's lone weakness.
"Our pitchers made some pitches that weren't too good," longtime Rice coach Wayne Graham said. " Too many bad pitches, too many mistakes on the mound."
They're mistakes Rice can't afford Saturday at 5 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360) when the two teams meet again in the second game of a best-of-three series. Facing elimination, the pressure is now on Rice and its star pitcher, Ryan Berry (7-1, 2.00 ERA), as the depth behind him remains a question. Of the five Rice pitchers LSU saw Friday night, only Jordan Rogers escaped without giving up a run. Berry will face LSU starter Louis Coleman (12-2, 2.72 ERA).
"We knew that we were going to probably need a little stronger bullpen than we've had in the past to win today," Graham said. "Because Mike [Ojala] can only go somewhere around 90 pitches max. The idea was to put [Taylor] Wall in there and try and shorten the bullpen. The reason we brought him in when we did was because of left-handed hitters."
Neither Schimpf nor lefty Blake Dean flinched, though, and Graham's plan backfired.
Wall, a freshman who tossed a complete-game shutout in an impressive outing against K-State in last week's regionals, took the loss and allowed three earned runs on three hits in a third of an inning. No hit was bigger, though, than Schimpf's. Rice led 4-2 in the bottom of the fifth when Schimpf hit a fastball over the right-center-field fence and gave the Tigers a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish.
"When Ryan hit that ball out, you could just feel it, you could just feel that big inning coming like it has so many times," said LSU first baseman Sean Ochinko, who had one hit and three RBIs in five at-bats. "I think we rolled after that. We scored six runs in the bottom of the fifth. We got the bats rolling, the confidence, the stadium into it. That's what we're looking for to help us win the game."
For the next two days, though, Graham's strategy hasn't changed -- that is, if Berry can get the Owls to Sunday. Wall threw only 12 pitches on Friday night, so he should be rested for Sunday.
"In fact," Graham deadpanned, "he'll probably be stimulated, I would think."
As Graham and LSU coach Paul Mainieri met on the field to shake hands after the game, they looked at each other and agreed, "So much for our pitchers' duel tonight."
It's hardly as if LSU played a flawless game. In fact, their four errors easily could have cost them the game if the Owls' pitching had not collapsed. The teams combined for six errors, three hit batters and two balks. LSU got a brief scare in the end when Buzzy Haydel gave up three hits and three earned runs in one inning, but the Tigers' defense compensated with some spectacular plays in the field. LSU got help in the middle innings from starting pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, who struck out nine batters with no walks, gave up five runs (only one earned) and allowed five hits in 7 2/3 innings to earn the win.
"When Ryan hit that home run, the fans really got into it," Ranaudo said. "It really is a big momentum swing, especially for me as a pitcher, sitting there, watching it all happen, just watching the offense gain a lot of confidence through that, and the guys after him just putting up more runs. It gives me a lot of confidence to go out there and try to throw strikes, and get as deep as I could into the game."
Berry doesn't have much of a choice now but to do the same thing for Rice on Saturday.
Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com.