Rice blanks LSU in Super Regional opener

Mother Nature acted weird Friday night in downtown Houston.<br> At Rice University's Reckling Park, it thundered <EM>after</EM> it rained.<br> Following a 15-minute rain delay in the top third inning, the Owls thundered for four extra-base hits and six runs – the only scoring in their win against LSU in the opening game of their NCAA Super Regional series in front of a record-crown of 4,615.

Lightning was constant throughout the game in the form of Rice pitcher Steven Herce. A ninth-round selection of the Texas Rangers in this week's Major League draft, he threw a complete-game, three-hitter against LSU to hand the Tigers their third shutout in over 200 postseason games. Herce finished the night with ten strikeouts and only one walk to improve his record to 13-2.

As easy as the game was for Herce, it was difficult for LSU starting pitcher Lane Mestepey. After facing the minimum over the first two innings, Mestepey got roughed up for six hits – a triple, three doubles and two singles - in the third. He would recover and limit Rice to three hits over the next four innings.

"You've got to tip your hat to Rice," said LSU head coach Smoke Laval. "Lane would have had to throw a one-hit shutout or a no-hitter for us to win tonight."

Clay Harris replaced Mestepey for the eighth inning and retired the side in order, but the damage had already been inflicted with five unearned runs for the Owls.

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A steady rain halted the game with one out in the top of the third with LSU at the plate. Herce retired the next two Tigers when play resumed, and Rice (51-12) poured it on in the bottom of the inning.

The storm started when LSU third baseman Wally Pontiff successfully blocked a hard grounder from Paul Janish but couldn't make a clean throw to Blake Gill covering first base. This allowed Janish to advance to second, and he moved to third when Austin Davis doubled to center field.

A wild pitch from Mestepey (11-5) allowed the runners to advance and put Rice on the scoreboard.

Justin Ruchti drove in Davis with a single to right field and moved to second on Chris Kolkhorst's sacrifice bunt.

With two outs, Eric Arnold went down the left field line for a run scoring double to five Rice a 3-0 lead. The lead grew when Vincent Sinisi singled to right field to score Arnold.

Sinisi advanced to second on a throw to try to get Arnold at the plate and scored when Hunter Brown doubled to right.

Brown came home when designated hitter Enrique Cruz followed with a drive to deep center that fooled LSU outfielder David Raymer. The ball bounced off the wall and rolled away from Raymer, allowing Cruz to record a stand-up triple.

The Tigers (44-21) answered meekly to Rice's offensive surge. A two-out single from Sean Barker in the fourth inning and Chris Phillips' leadoff single in the sixth were the only hits for LSU the rest of the way. Blake Gill got the first hit off Herce with a single in the second inning, and J.C. Holt led off the ninth with a base on balls to start the ninth. It was the only walk issued in the game for both teams.

Out of the four base runners LSU had in Friday's game, all failed to reach second base as Herce faced only three batters over the minimum.

"They had one good inning against us," said Pontiff. "We played with them straight up for the other eight innings. Maybe tomorrow we'll have the good game."

This was the second time LSU has lost to start an NCAA Super Regional, the first coming in 1999 when the Tigers lost at Alabama in the first year of the expanded tournament format.

LSU must now rebound against Rice tomorrow to force a third game in the series. The two teams meet Saturday at 2 p.m. and would play again at 1 p.m. Sunday if the Tigers can even the series.

Brian Wilson will be the starting pitcher for LSU on Saturday. The plan was to go with Bo Pettit after Wilson started two games in last weekend's NCAA Regional, but a finger blister Pettit's throwing hand forced Wilson to move up in the rotation.

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