The first two times Florida Atlantic catcher Pedro Pages had stepped into the batter’s box Thursday morning at MGM Park, FIU right-hander Nick McDonald had started him off with breaking pitches.
“I was just looking for something I could shoot back up the middle,” Pages said. “The first two at-bats, they threw me first-pitch breaking balls, so I figured they were going to throw it to me again.”
McDonald did, and Pages ripped a slider into left field for a three-run double that sparked a six-run, sixth inning as the Owls stayed alive in The First, A National Banking Association, Conference USA Championship with an 8-4 victory.
Pages’ hit lifted FAU into a 3-2 lead, and Owls center fielder Jared Shouppe capped the rally with his seventh home run of the season, a three-run blast to right field.
“The bottom line is we didn’t get it done when it counted and they put a good inning together on us,” FIU coach Mervyl Melendez said. “Unfortunately, (Thursday) it went against us.”
The seventh-seeded Panthers (31-27) became the first team eliminated from the eight-team C-USA postseason field.
Third-seeded FAU (34-20-1) will move into Friday’s 12:30 p.m. elimination game, facing the loser of Thursday night’s Old Dominion-Rice matchup.
“We move on, and at this point, you get no style points,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “You get no points for looking good or making good moves. Those things are all out the window. It’s about winning games, and trying to advance on.”
FIU led 2-0 after Nick Day smacked his 11th home run of the season off FAU starter Blake Sanderson, who lasted just two innings and gave up four hits.
Alex House (6-4) came in and allowed just two runs on three hits over seven innings. He walked two and struck out eight.
Day, who would finish with three hits and two runs scored, drove in his third and fourth runs of the game with a two-run double in the bottom of the sixth inning to get the Panthers back within 6-4, but FAU first baseman Esteban Puerta answered with a two-run double in the top of the seventh inning.
RICE CONTINUES WINNING WAYS: Over the years, Rice has earned a reputation for winning close baseball games, and Coach Wayne Graham said the reason for that was very simple.
“Well, if you’ve got good relief pitching, you look real smart,” Graham said shortly after watching his closer, Glenn Otto, surrender only a walk over the final 3 1/3 innings of Rice’s 4-3 victory over Old Dominion Thursday in the second round of The First, A National Banking Association, Conference USA Championship.
“That’s the name of that game, all the way up to the major leagues. Good relief pitching, and you look like you can make all the right moves.”
The move gave the sixth-seeded Owls (29-29) a day off Friday and moved them straight into Saturday’s 9 a.m. semifinal game. Rice will take on the survivor of Friday’s 3 p.m. elimination game between second-seeded ODU (37-20) and third-seeded Florida Atlantic (34-20-1).
One win would put Rice into its ninth C-USA baseball championship game. Should Rice fall, the teams would play a second time at 4 p.m. for a spot in Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game.
Rice first baseman Darryn Sheppard drove in a pair of runs, including what proved to be the deciding run with a RBI-single in the fifth inning.
But Otto (4-3) proved stifling, starting by stranding runners at second and third on a flyball to end the sixth inning.
“Glenn Otto was the difference,” Graham said. “Obviously, he was the difference.”
ODU coach Chris Finwood agreed.
“Otto was a big-leaguer out there (Thursday night),” Finwood said. “I told our guys I couldn’t him. He was on, and when he’s throwing the ball like that, he’s going to be tough.”
The game sported some warts.
Rice committed four errors and its pitchers committed two balks. Finwood said a missed cutoff man cost ODU two runs in Rice’s three-run, third inning and still was shaking his head over a runner interference play at the plate that ended a Monarch rally in the fifth inning.
“We had a tough call at the plate that would have tied it up (3-3), and we gave them two runs in the inning they got three,” Finwood said. “We’ve been really good, fundamentally, most of the year, but that really cost us.”
Center fielder Ryan Chandler had two of Rice’s seven hits, while ODU second baseman Jared Young led the Monarchs with two hits.
RECORD SETTING PERFORMANCE: Charlotte’s Colton Laws set a C-USA tournament record with 14 strikeouts on Thursday as the 49ers topped UTSA 5-0.
UTSA (29-27) will now play Southern Miss at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. Charlotte (34-22) gets a day off.
Laws was locked in, allowing just four hits in the complete game shutout to improve to 7-2 on the year.
Zach Jarrett played a big role in Charlotte’s win. The leadoff batter drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly. He later extended the 49ers’ lead to 5-0 with a three-run homer in the seventh inning. Brett Netzer drove in the team’s other run.
C.J. Pickering fell to 3-3 for UTSA. The Roadrunner starter allowed all five runs on 10 hits and two walks. He also struck out two.
Charlotte’s Hunter Jones led all players with three hits and two runs scored.