May 24, 2012
Entering the game as perhaps the hottest team in the league entering the postseason, fifth-seed Memphis punched its ticket to the 2012 Conference USA Championship title game with a 3-2 win over No. 1 seed Rice on Thursday evening at Trustmark Park.
Winners of 11 of their final 13 regular-season games, the Tigers hammered Southern Miss in the C-USA Championship opener 14-3 on Wednesday morning and overcame a 2-0 deficit against the Owls with two runs in the seventh and the go-ahead run in the eighth courtesy of a RBI-single to center off the bat of right fielder T.J. Rich.
With the win, Memphis improves to 31-26 and advances to a conference championship game for the first time since winning the now-defunct Great Midwest title with a 5-3 win over Cincinnati on May 21, 1995. The Tigers will close out pod play on Friday when they square off against Houston at 7 p.m., and will face the winner of the other pod in Sunday's championship game. First pitch for the C-USA Championship title game is slated for 1 p.m. and will be televised live nationally on CBS Sports Network. Rice, meanwhile, falls to 40-16 on the year and will close its run in the C-USA Championship on Saturday at 7 p.m. against Southern Miss.
Memphis starter Dan Langfield (7-6) got off to a bit of a rocky start, getting touched up for two runs on three hits in the first inning. From there, however, he gave up only three more hits and faced just four more than the minimum the rest of his outing. He finished the day with seven strikeouts and three walks while hitting one batter.
Jonathan Van Eaton came on in relief of Langfield in the ninth and picked up his eighth save of the season after rebounding from allowing a one-out single by striking out Rice left fielder Michael Ratterree and third baseman Shane Hoelscher to spark the Tigers' celebration.
Designated hitter Eli Hynes led an eight-hit Memphis attack with a 2-for-4 performance, but the biggest blow of the game came in the eighth by Rich. With the score knotted at 2-all, Hynes got things going with a leadoff single up the middle and was lifted for pinch-runner Zac Carter. Right fielder Derrick Thomas followed with a base hit to center to chase Rice starter Austin Kubitza from the game.
Right-hander J.T. Chargois, who started the game as the Owls' designated hitter and went 2-for-4 at the plate, came on to try and put out the fire. Rich, however, had other ideas and roped a 1-1 offering into centerfield to plate Carter from second.
Rice got off to a good start as shortstop Ford Stainback opened the game with a leadoff walk and second baseman Christian Stringer followed with a double down the right field line. Thomas had a hard time fielding the ball in an attempt to relay it back in, which allowed Stainback to score and Stringer to advance to third on the error, and Chargois laced an RBI-single through the left side of the infield in the ensuing at-bat to stake the Owls to a 2-0 lead.
Kubitza kept the Tiger offense at bay over the first six innings, allowing just three hits and a walk during a stretch that saw just one Memphis baserunner move into scoring position. In the seventh, however, Thomas opened the frame by reaching on a throwing error by Stainback, moved to second on a ground-out and scored on an RBI-single to left by second baseman Bryce Beeler. One out later, catcher Keaton Aldridge tied the ballgame with a run-scoring double to the gap in left central.
Rice had in the top of the eighth as Chargois smoked a leadoff double down the left-field line, but Langfield got back-to-back fly balls to record the next two outs. During the second fly-ball out, however, Chargois broke for third on contact and was a quarter of the down the line toward the plate when Memphis centerfielder Ford Wilson secured the ball in his glove and threw an easy relay back to the infield for an unconventional double-play to set up Rich's heroics in the home half of the inning.
The Owls had seven hits on the night and seven on the basepaths. Kubitza (7-3) was saddled with the loss after giving up three runs (one earned) on seven hits and a walk while striking out eight in 7.2 solid innings on the mound.