Owls unafraid of big deficits, loose Louisville in Game 1

OMAHA, Neb. -- They were branded offensively inept, habitually inconsistent, and, worst of all, cursed.

It was hard to tell that Rice is the top-seeded team at the College World Series.

"I know some guy in Louisville, some writer at a paper, said we couldn't hit and were very beatable," Rice catcher Danny Lehmann said. "We take that as a challenge."

The Owls broke out of a postseason hitting slump -- and a huge drought in Omaha -- to rally from six runs down and beat Louisville 15-10 on a steamy afternoon at Rosenblatt Stadium that stretched to nearly 3½ hours.

Lehmann's RBI double to the left-center gap in the eighth inning gave Rice its first lead in a game that appeared to be over in the fifth, when the Cardinals took a 10-4 lead. The Owls went into the day scoring just 22 runs in June, and left Omaha last summer failing to score in 23 straight innings.

The skid hit 25 2/3 innings before Lehmann's RBI single to right-center. Then the Owls erupted for three more runs, and belted out 19 hits for the day. Those hits came against a Louisville team that had the nation's fifth-lowest ERA.

"Can anyone truly define baseball?" said Rice coach Wayne Graham. "That's what makes it such a great game, because it's unpredictable. It's capricious and unpredictable, the greatest game there is.

Can anyone truly define baseball? That's what makes it such a great game, because it's unpredictable. It's capricious and unpredictable, the greatest game
there is.

Wayne Graham

"Somebody asked me did I expect a pitchers' duel. I didn't know what was going to happen. Honestly, I didn't expect 15-10. It's a crazy game, and they can hit it."

Crazy because Rice came to Omaha with the fourth-best team ERA in the country and was rocked for 10 runs in the first five innings. Crazy because after that, Louisville couldn't scratch out anything.

This was the Cardinals' first trip to the College World Series -- they almost didn't even hear their names called for the postseason -- but they were loose and at times jaw-dropping in the first half of the day. They watched Logan Johnson crush two home runs; they were up 5-0 by the top of the third.

Nothing seemed to be going right for 55-12 Rice at that point. Joe Savery sent a ball to the warning track in right-center in the bottom of the third, but Boomer Whiting made an off-balance catch into the wall. The scoreboard stayed stuck on zero.

"It gets to the point where it's comical after a while," Rice second baseman Aaron Luna said of the Owls' tough-luck hitting struggles.

He said the Owls didn't try any unorthodox methods to break the hitting slump, which several players called "The curse."

Luna was 1-for-21, but went 2-for-4 Friday with a home run and three RBIs.

"It was just [a matter of] relaxing," he said, "going back to fundamentals. Go out and have a good batting practice. Try not to be too mindful of the fact that we weren't hitting the ball very well."

It didn't hurt the Owls that Louisville had its share of defensive bungles and committed four errors for the day. One of the biggest came in the bottom of the fifth, when shortstop Chris Cates mishandled a grounder that put runners on second and third and allowed Rice cut the lead to five. The Owls scored two more runs in the inning, then made it a 10-8 game on a solo homer by Savery in the sixth.

Luna's home run in the seventh cut the lead to one, then Rice erupted for a six-run eighth inning that was capped by back-to-back Louisville errors.

"Make no mistake … Rice deserves a lot of credit. They didn't quit," said Louisville coach Dan McDonnell. "But I'd be lying if said, sitting up here, that we didn't feel like we let one get away.

"It's a long season, and I'm sure they're as frustrated as I am right now. You've got to play clean baseball. Losing in Omaha feels no better than losing in Louisville. It hurts."

Rice reliever Bobby Bramhall shut the door on the Cardinals in the final two innings, allowing one hit and walking three. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, and struck out Cates to start the ninth inning.

His dazzling, cool-headed work didn't necessarily surprise the no-nonsense Graham, an old-timer who's been to Omaha six times.

"Bramhall doesn't even know where he is," Graham joked. "He's left handed, he's going to throw his pitches, and the heck with them. He believes in everything he throws. It's great to have a reliever like that who believes in himself. And he truly does."

So do the Owls, who didn't need any inspirational speeches when things looked grim early Friday.

"People called it a curse, they called it 30 different things," Lehmann said. "I think we just had to get hot at the right time."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.