RENO -- The University of Nevada baseball team can now say it's able to play with the one of the best teams in the country.
Only problem is, the Wolf Pack can't beat one of the best teams in the country. Once again, Nevada battled Rice evenly only to lose 7-4 on Saturday at Peccole Park.
And once again, the difference in Rice's fourth win in five games against Nevada was that the Owls executed a little better than Nevada. The Wolf Pack hurt themselves early when they had two runners picked off and also didn't make a couple of key defensive plays and that was the difference of the game.
That and the pitching of Jeff Niemann (12-0), who threw 155 pitches before finally having to be pulled in the ninth inning. Rice coach Wayne Graham must come from the John McKay school of coaching.
After having O.J. Simpson carry the ball more than 40 times in a game, McKay said afterward, "The ball ain't heavy. He's not in a union."
The ball certainly isn't heavy for Niemann, who is 6-9 and 250 pounds. He came in with a 1.58 earned run average and allowed three earned runs over 8.2 innings.
Niemann had retired 15 straight before Jacob Butler singled in the ninth. Niemann was finally chased with two outs when Ben Mummy singled. David Aardsma came in and got Tony Cappuccilli, who represented the tying run, to pop out to end the game.
After Rice took a 2-0 lead in the first, Nevada's first three batters reached in the bottom of the first, but two of them were picked off and the Wolf Pack had to settle for one run on Brett Hayes' RBI single.
"We're trying to be aggressive," Nevada coach Gary Powers said. "Unfortunately it didn't work out for us. We're proving that we can play with the best teams in the country."
Nevada received another outstanding effort from its bullpen, this time from Bryan Johnson, who pitched 3.1 scoreless innings. Starting pitcher J.T. Sherman was charged with seven earned runs through 5.2 innings.
Sherman left with Nevada down 5-4. Johnson allowed a flyball to Chris Kolkhorst to left field. Chris Gimenez couldn't make the catch up against the wall and the play went for a two-run triple that made it 7-4.
"It's a game of execution," Powers said. "We had a couple plays we needed to make and didn't make and it changed the whole complexion of the game."
After Kolkhorst's flyball, Johnson shut Rice down. "I just spotted up with the fastball," Johnson said. "They're not a better ball club than us, we know that."
Robert Marcial, who went 1-for-2 and had an excellent game defensively at shortstop, echoed Johnson's thoughts.
"That's what we've got to keep doing, keep battling and battling," Marcial said. "Nobody's really down. We're just going to have to play a little bit better."
Gimenez tripled and scored to cut Nevada's deficit to 3-2 in the third. Kevin Kouzmanoff's two-run single cut Nevada's deficit to 5-4 in the fourth. Ryan Strain and Mummy each had two hits and
While being swept by Rice (43-7, 22-2 in the Western Athletic Conference) to Nevada's NCAA playoff hopes, a win in today's series finale would certainly give the Wolf Pack (28-21, 15-7) a little margin for error.
"Our whole focus right now is we've got seven games left and we've got to win as many of those games as we can," Powers said.