By Gene Schallenberg The Huntsville Item

Diego Seastrunk's solo home run down the left field line to lead off the ninth inning completed a five-run Rice rally as the No. 17 ranked Owls defeated Sam Houston 8-7 in a non-conference baseball game at Don Sanders Stadium.

On a night when Sam Houston head coach Mark Johnson was honored with a plaque recognizing his 1,000th career win as a head coach, it looked like the Bearkats might make it a storybook kind of day deep into the game.

With just nine outs to go, the Bearkats had Rice on the ropes. The Kats, though, left a little too much breathing room and the Owls clawed back.

After Rice rallied in the final innings and regained the lead for the first time since the top of the first inning, Sam Houston couldn't create any last-inning heroics, falling 8-7 Tuesday night at Don Sanders Stadium.

"They're a good-hitting ballclub so you can't make mistakes against them and that's what we did," Johnson said.

The Owls (20-14) were held scoreless from the second through the sixth inning, but started to chip away late in the game. Rice, which trailed 7-3, scored in the seventh to pull to within three runs. Then in the eighth, it started to fall apart for the Bearkats.

A passed ball with the bases loaded allowed another Owl run. Later, Rice tied the game on a two-RBI single by center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh.

In the top of the ninth with one out, Owls designated hitter Diego Seastrunk hit a long fly ball that bounced off the left field foul pole for the winning run.

The Bearkats couldn't manage much of a threat in the bottom of the ninth. Kevin Miller singled to left with two outs, but Rice reliever Abe Gonzales got Michael Hilliard to ground out to end the game. 

"Matt (Shelton) was having a hard time throwing strikes," Johnson said. "Hitters were then sitting on pitches and you just can't pitch that way in that situation. It just didn't fall right for us."

Before even getting a chance to bat, the Bearkats (15-19) were in a hole after the Owls scored three runs in the top of the first.

The Bearkats, very quickly, had an answer, scoring two in the bottom of the inning to pull within a run.

The Owls were held in check over the next few innings thanks to junior Brandon Kimbrel, who relieved starter Jordan Westra in the second inning.

Kimbrel entered the game with a runner on first and third and two outs and coaxed Anthony Rendon to pop out to end the threat. Over the next four frames, Kimbrel held the Owls to just one hit before Rice began its rally in the seventh.

"Brandon Kimbrel kept us in the game. That's all you can ask a pitcher to do, just keep putting up zeros like that," Bearkats second baseman Braeden Riley said. "He was just up there throwing strikes. They're going to hit them. You're not going to fool those kind of guys, they're good hitters."

After Kimbrel retired Rendon to end the top of the second, the Kats fired back with three runs in the inning to take their first lead.

Riley drove in a pair of runs on a single over second baseman Michael Ratterree to the right-center field gap to give the Bearkats the lead.

"We got a couple of timely hits and it just kind of slipped away," Riley said. "The thing about a team like (Rice) is if you get a lead on them, you have to keep pounding them down. You can't let them stay in the game. ... You see what happens when you let them stay in the game."

The Kats scored single runs in the fourth and sixth innings, but it wasn't enough.

Sam Houston returns to action Friday when it heads to Beaumont to begin a three-game series against Lamar.

The next home games for the Kats will be a Southland series with Nicholls Friday through Sunday April 23-25.

Tickets for Sam Houston State baseball home games are on sale online at www.gobearkats.com.

All Sam Houston students, faculty and staff receive free admission with their SHSU BearkatOne I.D. cards. For $2, students and faculty/staff can upgrade their seats with  reserved chairback seat. Offer is available at the ticket booth the day of the game.

For more information on exciting offers like the "Friday Family Pack Tickets" or "Super Tuesday" Mini-Pack Tickets, go to the ticket link below or contact the Sam Houston State ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House at Bowers Stadium. The ticket office telephone number is (936) 294-1729.

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