Florida Atlantic accomplished the first half of its Saturday mission by defeating Rice 7-4 in the afternoon to to force one more meeting between the schools with a spot in the Conference USA championship on the line.
“Today’s key was we got come really, really clutch hits,” FAU coach John McCormack said.
No. 3 FAU and No. 7 Rice will meet one more time on Saturday at approximately 10 p.m., with the winner advancing to Sunday’s C-USA tournament championship game. The winner of that game receives the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“First of all we have to come up with a starter, then we need a good start from him – five or six innings, and then we’ll use the bullpen from there,” FAU coach John McCormack said.
Rice defeated FAU 5-4 on Friday to send Florida Atlantic to the losers bracket. After FAU dispatched second-seeded Louisiana Tech on Friday night in an elimination game, Florida Atlantic faced the proposition of needing to take two from Rice on Saturday to extend its Conference USA tournament run.
After FAU took the lead for good with two runs in the top of the seventh, reliever Matt Harris slammed the door shut on Rice. One of the few FAU hurlers who had yet to appear in the C-USA tourmanent, tossed three scoreless innings to record his first save of the season.
“Matt Harris was tremendous in relief,” McCormack said.
FAU starter Blake Sanderson gave McCormack all that he could have hoped for. Sanderson, who pitched three scoreless relief innings on Wednesday, allowed only one run through five innings and nearly made it out of the six inning unscathed, but C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Frank booted a routine ground ball that would have been the third out of the inning.
“Sanderson, best start of the year, saves it for today,” McCormack said.
Rice followed with a consecutive singles, prompting McCormack to lift Sanderson in favor of lefty Weston Clemente. Rice lead-off hitter Ford Proctor greeted Clemente by pounding his first offering off the right field wall, clearing the bases and tying the score at 4.
FAU answered right back. Cody Wilson grounded into a bases-loaded double play that plated Jordan Poore with the go ahead run. One batter later, Eric Rivera’s single into left field scored Gunnar Lambert from second, giving the Owls a 6-4 lead.
Rivera gave FAU another insurance run in the top of the ninth with an infield single that allowed Frank to score from third.
Trailing 1-0 entering the third inning, FAU took advantage of three third-inning walks to grab a 4-1 lead. Jared DeSantolo’s two-RBI single back up the middle proved to be the big blow of the inning.
With Saturday’s victory, FAU improved its record to 39-16-1, further enhancing its chances at receiving an at-large bid should the Owls fail to claim the C-USA tourney crown.