May 16, 2009
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The UAB baseball team overcame its biggest deficit of the year Saturday to close out the regular season with a 15-12 win over fourth-ranked Rice, defeating the Owls for the second time in three days.
The Blazers trailed 9-1 through five and a half innings before exploding for 14 runs over their last four at-bats. Luke Stewart was one of the catalysts for the UAB offense as he posted a home run, a double and five RBI during the comeback.
Brint Hardy also homered in the game -- a first-inning solo shot -- and stole his 46th base of the year. The senior outfielder closes the regular season as the NCAA Division I leader in stolen bases.
UAB improved to 30-24 (11-12 C-USA), snapping Rice's streak of 13 consecutive Conference USA series wins. The Owls fell to 35-15 (16-8 C-USA) and dropped behind East Carolina to finish the season second in the league standings.
As the No. 2 seed, Rice will now be on the same side of the C-USA Championship bracket as UAB, which was already locked into the No. 6 seed before Saturday's game. The Blazers will square off with third-seeded Houston in the tournament's opening game Wednesday at 9 a.m. (CT) in Hattiesburg, Miss.
"This was a great weekend for us," UAB head coach Brian Shoop said. "Rice is a class program in our league and in the Southeast. I'm very proud of our kids. Coming back from a 9-1 deficit against a top five team, they did a great job of hanging in there and battling."
The biggest inning for UAB was a seven-run seventh frame that turned a three-run deficit into a four-run lead.
Trailing 10-6 heading into the bottom of the seventh, UAB scored one run on a wild pitch and also managed a pair of doubles from Digger Towe and Stewart that combined to bring three runs home as the Blazers knotted the game at 10-10. But there was more left to come.
After a pinch-hit walk from Austin Taylor
put two runners on with two outs, Jamal Austin
laced a triple over the head of Rice center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh to plate both runners and give UAB its first lead since the first inning at 12-10. Jonathan Merritt
, who led off the inning, came to the plate again and singled to score Austin as the Blazers closed the inning with a 13-10 advantage.
"I went into that at-bat very prepared because of all the information our coaches had given us on their pitcher," Austin said of his triple. "I knew my teammates had confidence in me, and I wanted to come through."
The Blazers tacked on two insurance runs in the eighth and held on in the ninth. Rice got a two-run homer from Brock Holt and then put a pair of runners on to bring the potential tying run to the plate with two outs, but Nick Graffeo induced a lazy fly ball from Rice's Rick Hague to seal the victory.
Graffeo worked the final 2.1 innings and earned the win in a relief effort. Matt Evers took the loss for Rice after surrendering three runs in a third of an inning out of the bullpen. Evers was one of 10 Rice pitchers to see the mound, including starting catcher Diego Seastrunk, who threw the final two-thirds of the eighth inning. Each of the last seven Rice hurlers pitched two-thirds of an inning or less.
Rice out-hit UAB 20-12 for the game, but Blazer batters drew 11 free passes from Rice pitchers. UAB used four pitchers and surrendered just three walks. The Blazers got to the Owls' bullpen after managing just one run off Rice starter Mike Ojala, who was on a pitch count and left the game after four innings.
For Rice offensively, five different players tallied at least three hits, led by a 4-for-5 effort at the plate from Sultzbaugh. Holt's three RBI were a team-high, while Michael Fuda and Jess Buenger each drove in a pair.
In addition to Stewart's five RBI for UAB, Austin drove in three runs, while Merritt and Hardy each drove in two. Towe was 3-for-4 to lead the Blazers in hits.
The UAB victory combined with a win by East Carolina earlier in the day kept Rice from finishing atop the league standings for the first time since the Owls joined Conference USA in 2006. The Blazers have now won three of their past four meetings with Rice, dating back to the first round of the 2008 conference tournament.
The Blazers also secured their first 30-win season since 2005. UAB has posted 30 wins in a season only twice in the last decade, winning 30 games in 2004 and 31 in 2005.
The eight-run deficit was the most overcome by a UAB team this season. The Blazers' previous largest comeback was back on Feb. 20 in the season-opener with Radford when UAB trailed 7-0 before coming back for an 8-7 win.