Despite starting from an unfamiliar position in the Conference USA postseason baseball bracket, Rice University played Wednesday morning pretty much as it has in past years.
Freshman right-hander Matt Canterino allowed four hits and struck out a career-high 11 batters in a personal-best 7 2/3 innings and as Rice topped Florida Atlantic, 5-3 in the opener of The First, A National Banking Association, Conference USA Championship at MGM Park.
“Their pitcher threw great,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “He was way better than when we faced him at the end of March, beginning of April. He was fantastic.
“His fastball was 88 (miles per hour) to 91 (mph), sometimes 92, and his 12-6 (o’clock) breaking ball, which Rice is known for, was really good. This time around, his changeup to left-handers was really good.”
Sixth-seeded Rice (28-29) will face Old Dominion at 4 p.m. Thursday on the second day of competition at MGM Park.
Third seeded FAU (33-20-1) fell into elimination play, and will play rival Florida International at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Catcher Dominic DiCaprio, who hit a double and 14th home run of the season, drove in three runs as Rice collected 10 hits, half for extra bases.
“DiCaprio’s just a good hitter,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “He can make adjustments. He went one-way for the double, the other way for the home run. Pretty good hitter.”
FAU managed just five hits against Canterino (5-4) and reliever Glenn Otto, who picked up his eighth save after working the final 1 1/3 innings.
But three went for solo home runs, with first baseman Esteban Puerta hitting his 10th in the second inning, shortstop Tyler Frank his 11th in the sixth inning and second baseman Stephen Kerr his fourth in the eighth inning.
But it was not enough to overcome an early Rice lead that was bolstered by single runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
Old Dominion 3, FIU 2: After watching a two-run home run and his team’s lead sail over the fence in left field Wednesday afternoon at MGM Park, Old Dominion coach Chris Finwood gathered the Monarchs together for a quick pep talk.
“I told them, ‘Well, we’ve got that right where we want them,’” Finwood said shortly after watching his team rally past FIU. “We’ve just had so many of those like that, it doesn’t surprise me. This team is kind of built that way. They just don’t ever quit.”
“It’s really cruel coming all the way up here to Mississippi to play a team that we could have played back at home 45 minutes away,” FIU coach Mervyl Melendez said.
Shortstop Zach Rutherford drove in the game-tying run on a full-count single, and Kurt Sinnen’s bases-loaded walk forced in the game-winner as the Monarchs bounced back for two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The rally took back the momentum seized by FIU just a half inning before when freshman right fielder Javier Valdes cracked a two-run homer to give the Panthers its first lead of the game.
But ODU center fielder Kyle Battle led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a double off FIU reliever Dominic LoBrutto (1-5), then reached third safely on a sacrifice chopper back to the mound.
A fielder’s choice left runners at first and third before Rutherford lined his second hit of the game to right field. After an intentional walk to left fielder Culver Lamb loaded the bases, Kurt Sinnen was walked unintentionally to force in second baseman Jared Young.
Both teams got top-shelf performances from their starting pitchers.
ODU’s Sam Sinnen scattered nine hits over 7 1/3 innings, walking three while striking out six. He had nursed a 1-0 lead through the eighth inning, when he walked first baseman JC Escarra with one out before leaving a 1-2 fastball up in the strike zone that Valdes punished for his fourth home run of the season.
FIU starter Tyler Myrick allowed just one run on six hits in 6 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out seven.
Battle and Rutherford each had two hits for ODU, and Valdes, catcher Zack Soria and third baseman Zach Files each had a pair of hits for the Panthers.