The middle of the Rice batting order wore out Florida International as the Owls thrashed the Panthers 9-2 in the first round of the Conference USA baseball tournament Wednesday.
And the Owls’ heavy hitters did it with runners on base.
“After the first couple of innings, we hit the ball OK,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. “But we’d get something going with two outs, go first and third, and not get a hit. That was the difference right there.”
Rice (38-17) finished with 15 hits off four FIU pitchers. Michael Aquino had four of them and three RBI. Skyler Ewing also had four hits and knocked in two runs, while Ford Stainback had three hits and two RBI.
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Conversely, Panther catcher Aramis Garcia, who on Tuesday was named the Conference USA Player of the Year, hit two singles and a triple against the Owls. Problem was, on three of his four at-bats, there were already two outs in the inning when he got to the plate.
FIU (36-19) pounded out 11 hits and designated hitter Brian Portelli also had three. But the Panthers trailed 6-0 after five innings and 9-1 after six.
“That’s been kind of a story for us a little bit too often this year, just not getting the hits at the right moment,” Thomas said. “And they did.”
With the loss, FIU now faces Old Dominion at 10 a.m. Thursday in the losers’ bracket of the tournament, which is double-elimination until Sunday’s championship game.
Rice pitcher Kevin McCanna (7-3) faced the minimum Wednesday until Garcia’s triple with two outs in the fourth inning, although Portelli singled in the third before being erased on a double-play.
FIU’s Chris Mourelle (9-3) didn’t have such an easy time in the early innings, although he wriggled out of a jam in the second and only allowed two runs in the third when it could have been worse.
But the fifth inning, when Rice’s first four hitters of the inning scored, was the key to the game. John Clay Reeves reached on a throwing error, Chase McDowell and Aquino each singled and Ewing doubled. A sacrifice fly by Stainback scored the third run of the inning and Leon Byrd singled in another.
FIU got on the scoreboard in the top of the sixth. Tyler Hibbert singled and went to third on a single by Garcia. Hibbert scored the Panthers’ first run when Edwin Rios singled.
But the Owls added three more runs in the bottom of the sixth to make it 9-1, with one of the runs coming on Aquino’s third consecutive run-scoring single. Ewing and Stainback also singled in runs.
“That team gave me a hard time earlier this season,” Aquino said. “I think I got one hit against them with a lot of strikeouts. I knew I had some making up to do to help my team win.”