In what might be the most important Friday evening of the season, Rice pitchers Kevin McCanna and Matt Ditman did not let Southern Mississippi cross the plate.
In fact, on 13 occasions they didn’t let the second-place Golden Eagles put the ball in play. McCanna notched a career high 8 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. Ditman added 4 strikeouts, and combined they allowed just one walk and five hits in Rice’s 5-0 road win Friday.
“I was happy with how I did, and the guys did great behind me making plays,” McCanna said. “I started off throwing strikes. My slider is my out pitch, so I focused on throwing that with two strikes.”
With Rice leading 4-0 in the sixth inning, McCanna ran into some trouble. After giving up two singles – and then recording two outs – he walked Bradley Roney to load the bases. Rice coach Wayne Graham called for Ditman.
“We got great pitching from the two pitchers,” Graham said. “McKenna got a little tired. Usually I will go longer with him, but he looked tired, so Ditman picked it up.”
Facing No. 6 hitter Dylan Burdeaux, Ditman recorded the strikeout. He gave up a harmless single in the seventh inning and then retired seven straight batters for his seventh save of the season.
The win moved No. 12 Rice (30-14, 17-5 in Conference USA) to 2 ½ games ahead of Southern Miss (25-18, 13-6). UTSA, East Carolina and UAB are 4 ½ games behind the Owls. Even with two games remaining in Hattiesburg, Rice is assured of leaving town in first place. The Owls are looking for its fifth consecutive C-USA regular season title.
On Friday, Rice got all the offense it would need after a fourth inning at bat by Shane Hoelscher. John Clay Reeves opened the inning with a single. Cleanup hitter Skyler Ewing was hit by a pitch. Chase McDowell bunted to third base, and he ended up being safe at first to load the bases.
After just missing a grand slam on a foul ball, Hoelscher unloaded the bases with a double to score Reeves and Ewing. He later scored on Conner Teykl’s single.
“When runners are in scoring position, (the pitcher) will usually try to go with an off-speed pitch to get ahead,” Hoelscher said. “I was looking for it. The guy (Conor Fisk) had a good curveball and dropped two in there. With two strikes, I had to battle up and get a pitch I can hit somewhere safe.”
Hoelscher finished with three hits and three RBI in his 200th college game.
“Shane has been clutch and continues to be clutch,” Graham said.
The series continues at 2 p.m. Saturday. Blake Fox (8-0) is slated to start for Rice.
“We’d like to win at least one more, but winning Friday is big, particularly on the road,” Graham said.