Rice awaits Stanford-Fullerton winner in championship series

Wednesday, June 18th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ The Rice Owls are putting their previous College World Series failures behind them in an attempt to make school history.

Rice lost six of its seven games in its first three appearances in Omaha. Now, the Owls will play for the school's first national championship _ in any sport.

``One of the favorite sayings about us was, `Two and barbecue in Omaha,''' said coach Wayne Graham, whose only win in the CWS before this year was against Oklahoma State in 1999.

Justin Ruchti's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning gave Rice a 5-4 victory over defending national champion Texas on Wednesday night, and sent the Owls to the College World Series championship round.

``We came here with a monkey on our back,'' Graham said. ``We lost by one run to LSU, we lost by one to Texas, and we were in a close game with Miami right to the end.

``This year, we said we'd play good enough that bad breaks wouldn't matter.''

Instead of losing close games at the double-elimination CWS, as they have in each of their previous visits, the Owls (56-11) won them this year _ starting with a 4-2 victory over Southwest Missouri State.

After beating Texas (50-20) twice in three days, Rice awaits the winner of Thursday's Cal State Fullerton-Stanford game. Stanford staved off elimination with a 5-4 victory earlier Wednesday.

The Owls will play either the Titans or Cardinal in the best-of-three championship series that starts Saturday.

Three pitchers combined to walk nine and hit four batters, and the Owls' defense committed three errors.

The Owls won anyway, thanks to Ruchti's single off ace closer Huston Street that scored pinch-runner Matt Cavanaugh in the bottom of the ninth.

Street (8-1), last year's CWS Most Outstanding Player, lost for the first time in 12 decisions dating to March 8, 2002.

Street threw four straight sliders before Ruchti lined the fifth into center field to drive in Cavanaugh.

``I knew that was his out pitch, and I figured he'd stay away,'' Ruchti said. ``He happened to leave it up, and I got it pretty good.''

Jeff Blackinton led off the ninth and reached when his grounder rolled up second baseman Tim Moss' left arm and off his chest.

Cavanaugh took second on Dane Bubela's sacrifice and came home after Ruchti hit Street's 2-2 pitch. Texas center fielder Joe Ferin tried to charge the ball for a possible throw to the plate, but it got past him and Cavanaugh scored the winning run easily.

``I was going after him with my best stuff,'' Street said. ``I got ahead of him with my slider. I didn't think he'd expect five in a row, but he was right on it.''

Ruchti, the Owls' catcher and No. 9 batter, was 2-for-4 with three RBIs. He also caught two Longhorns stealing.

``It was one of the more memorable games of my life,'' he said. ``To put us in the championship series, that's what you dream of as a little kid.''

Texas left 15 runners on, including two in the top of the ninth.

``There were opportunities to score that were missed opportunities,'' Texas coach Augie Garrido said. ``It came down to a line drive that didn't find its way into a glove, and a runner was on second base. That's what separated the teams _ that line drive.''

David Aardsma (6-3) got the win after getting four outs in relief of Josh Baker and starter Philip Humber.

Stanford 5, Cal State Fullerton 3

Carlos Quentin hit two home runs as the Cardinal beat the Titans for the first time in five games.

``I was happy I could contribute because we needed a run at the time,'' said Quentin, who has 12 homers this season. ``I got the green light from Coach on a 3-0 pitch. When you can contribute like that, it makes you feel good about yourself.''

John Hudgins turned in a second straight strong performance, allowing five hits but only one after the third inning in a complete game.

As good as Hudgins was, coach Mark Marquess said Quentin's eighth-inning homer was a welcome sight.

``There is a huge difference between a one-run lead and two-run lead when you go into the ninth inning,'' Marquess said.

Quentin hit a two-run homer in the first to open the scoring for the Cardinal (49-16). By going 3-for-4 with three RBIs, Quentin raised his four-game CWS batting average to .500 (7-for-14).

Hudgins (13-3) was pitching on four days' rest after giving up two hits in eight innings of Stanford's 8-0 win over South Carolina in its CWS opener last Friday. He walked two, hit three batters and struck out seven. Two of the three runs against him were earned.

``I'm proud of John for throwing a complete game against one of the best teams in the nation,'' Marquess said. ``We were hoping for that, which is a lot to ask for in a game of this magnitude. He was masterful.''

P.J. Pilittere homered for the Titans (50-15).

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