HUNTINGTON -- A four-run fifth inning by Rice University appeared to put Marshall University's hopes of reaching the Conference USA baseball tournament against the wall, but the Thundering Herd rallied Thursday and beat the Owls, 5-4, in 11 innings at George T. Smailes Field at the Huntington YMCA Kennedy Center.
Tucker Linder hit a slider into right field to score Geordan Blanton from third base with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning to secure the win.
Linder lamented striking out out in the ninth inning with a chance to drive in the winning run and didn't want to miss another opportunity.
"In the bottom of the ninth (Rice reliever Garrett Gayle) threw me three sliders in the dirt so I knew he was going to be coming at me with sliders," Linder said. "So I just told myself to make sure it was a strike and just hit it the other way. That's exactly what I did and just poked it the other way."
Linder might not have been the hero if his at-bat wasn't set up by Blanton's heads up base running.
The sophomore from Paintsville, Kentucky, went from first base to third base on a sacrifice by Erik Rodriguez. Rodriguez's bunt went far enough up the base line that the third baseman was forced to charge the ball and make the throw to first to get the hitter, and no one covered third.
"I knew the pitcher wasn't that athletic and I thought I could beat him (to third)," Blanton said. "The pitcher made a great play to knock it down or I would have scored."
Marshall (26-26, 12-15 C-USA) got the win in the Owls' first trip to Huntington since the Thundering Herd joined the conference. Previous meetings were at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston.
Rice (24-29, 14-14) struggled to generate offense through the first 4 2/3 innings against Herd starting pitcher Joshua Shapiro. With two outs in the fifth inning, however, the Owls got to the senior from Columbus with an RBI single from Trei Cruz.
The next Rice batter, Andrew Dunlap, hit a three-run home run to center field for a 4-0 lead.
Owls starting pitcher Matt Canterino surrendered seven hits to the Herd, but got crucial outs to prevent Marshall from scoring. Through seven innings, he struck out nine and Marshall ended up stranding 10 runners on base.
Marshall finally got on the scoreboard with an RBI single by Linder in the sixth inning. A sacrifice by Elvis Peralta cut Rice's lead to 4-2 in the seventh.
Owls reliever Kendal Jefferies gave up back-to-back doubles by Blanton and Rodriguez in the ninth that cut the lead to 4-3. A walk to Shane Hanon was followed by a hard ground ball by Peralta that hit the foot of the Owls' third relief pitcher, Garrett Gayle, who got the force out at first, but the tying run moved to third base.
A wild pitch then brought Rodriguez home for the 4-4 tie and forced extra innings. Rice, which only had five hits, didn't seriously challenge in the extra frames.
Herd head coach Jeff Waggoner's quest to get his team to the postseason will continue Friday at 2 p.m. with the second game against Rice. The series will conclude with Senior Day at 11 a.m. Saturday.
"This is the playoffs for us until we get in," Waggoner said. "We're not looking at the tournament. We've got to get in first, so every game is a tournament game for us."