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Enormous eighth inning leads Rice past George Mason

Rice senior leftfielder Michael Aquino, seen here in an earlier game against UAB, put the Owls ahead 3-2 Friday by doubling home Keenan Cook. Rice defeated George Mason 7-2.
Rice senior leftfielder Michael Aquino, seen here in an earlier game against UAB, put the Owls ahead 3-2 Friday by doubling home Keenan Cook. Rice defeated George Mason 7-2.
Jeremy Shapiro

Through seven innings, Rice batters had accumulated five hits and one run against George Mason starter Jared Gaynor Friday in the team’s NCAA regional opener.

In the eighth inning alone, Rice recorded six hits and six runs. The sudden offensive assault lifted the Owls to a 7-2 win and a date with Texas at 7 p.m. Saturday in Reckling Park. The Longhorns blasted Texas A&M 8-1 earlier Friday.

What changed in the eighth inning? Rice’s Michael Aquino, who went 2-4 with an RBI and run, said one factor was getting used to Gaynor.

“It was more of a change in approach as to hitting,“ he said. “All of us had faced him twice already, and it was really just about staying back and seeing the ball as late as you can, because he is not going to blow anything by you. I think once we figured that out, we were able to take him out and that was really what we needed to do.”

Like the Rice hitters, the crowd of 4,355 was trying to stay patient, well aware that Rice’s offensive sometimes needs a jolt to get on track.

“It was good to have them behind us, as it was getting a little dicey there,” Rice rightfielder Keenan Cook said about the fan support. “They stayed behind us the whole time.”

After a Ford Stainback single and Chase McDowell sacrifice bunt started the eighth inning, Cook singled up the middle to score Stainback, tying the game at 2. He said it’s hard not to press when trailing in a close postseason game.

“You have to be in a good mix of being patient, but at the same time you have to attack,” Cook said. “That is definitely something that is tough to handle late in the game, especially in the playoffs. Fortunately tonight, we were able to do that, and hopefully we can build off that and keep it rolling.”

Cook moved to second on Shane Hoelscher’s single and advanced to third when Gaynor’s pickoff attempt went awry. Aquino put Rice ahead when his double scored Cook. Skyler Ewing was intentionally walked to load the bases. That was Gaynor’s final battle,

Taylor Hunt entered to pitch for George Mason. John Clay Reeves greeted him with a single down the leftfield line scoring Hoelscher and Aquino. Rice led 5-2. After a wild pitch and intentional walk, Leon Byrd drove in two more Owls on a single.

With a sudden 5-run cushion, Zech Lemond retired the Patriots in order in the ninth to complete the Rice win. Lemond entered the game in the top of the eight after another strong outing by Kevin McCanna. His line was 3 hits, 2 runs (1 earned), 3 walks and 5 strikeouts in 7.1 innings.

“I thought he had great stuff and complete control, and we just didn’t help him all that we needed to do,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said of McCanna. “I thought he had the stuff to take it all the way in. It’s unfortunate that pitching that well and you didn’t come away with a win. I thought he was great.”

George Mason (34-21) now meets Texas A&M (33-25) in an elimination game at 3 p.m. Saturday. Then Rice (42-18) and Texas (39-18) will try to stay undefeated in the double elimination regional.

Graham said it’s exciting to face the Longhorns.

“Obviously, we want to beat them and they want to beat us. We’ve built up quite a rivalry against them over the years. I think they got the overall winning record, but we are still 2-1 against them in Omaha, so maybe we can do something in this regional too. No, they’re a great team with a great coach.”