The Rice baseball team had another steady start on the mound, this time from junior right-hander Andrew Benak, to help pace the Owls to a 3-1 Conference USA victory over Marshall Sunday afternoon at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, West Virginia.
With the win the Owls completed the three-game sweep of the C-USA series and stretched the current win streak to four in a row. After the Rice pitchers combined to allow just one run in the first two games, including a 9-0 victory in Friday’s series opener and a 5-1 win on Saturday, Benak followed suit with a career-long 6.2 innings that kept Marshall off the scoreboard. The outing had the attention of Rice head coach Wayne Graham.
“Good pitching was the key again,” coach Graham said. “Benak had a great start. He used two pitches today, his fastball and his slider. A lot of that had to do with (senior catcher) Craig Manuel calling the right game. We could have hit better at times but we can’t do any better than winning every game of the series. It’s not all about the hitting. Good pitching can solve a lot of problems.”
Rice struck for the first run in the top of the third inning. Chase McDowell, who started the day in left field, lined the first of his three hits for two-out double off the right field wall. Christian Stringer followed with a bloop single down the left field line that allowed McDowell to score easily for a 1-0 Owl lead.
Three innings later Rice doubled the margin to 2-0. Junior right fielder Jeremey Rathjen led off the frame with a solo home run to left-center field. The longball was Rathjen’s team-leading seventh homer of the season and the 22nd of his collegiate career.
That proved to be enough room for Bebak, who was sound and solid in 6.1 innings for the longest outing of his career. Benak struck out nine batters while scattering four hits without any walks to improve his season record to 5-1. Right from the start he struck out the side in the bottom of the first inning. In the sixth the Houston native battled back to get out of a first-and-third situation still without allowing any runs.
“Craig and I were on the same page from the first pitch of the game,” Benak explained. “It felt good. I was able to throw strikes with more than one pitch. We worked well together and the defense made big plays. We knew we had to complete the sweep of the series.”
With some relief help from Chargois the Owls worked out of another first-and-third jam in the bottom of the seventh. The Thundering Herd scratched-out a run in the bottom of the eighth. Isaac Ballou hit a leadoff triple to centerfield and he scored on Sergio Leon’s sacrifice bunt down the first base line that made it 2-1. Marshall was looking for more after another base hit put the tying run at first, but the Owls completed a key 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.
The Owls used the momentum from the double play for a run in their half of ninth. As the starting designated hitter Chargois drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on Craig Manuel’s sacrifice bunt. He took third on a wild pitch and (after an intentional walk to Michael Fuda) Ryan Lewis hit an RBI double down the left field line that made the score 3-1.
Rice retired the Herd 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth for the 3-1 final. The Owls improved to 27-11 on the season and 9-3 in Conference USA play. Marshall moved to 13-22 overall and 1-8 against the league.
The three-game weekend series has concluded, but the Owls still have one more game on the current road swing. Rice plays at nationally-ranked Texas A&M on Tuesday, April 17, in College Station. First pitch against the Aggies is slated for 6:35 pm.