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Quoting Winston Churchill

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"Never, never, never give up."

That message seems simple enough, and in light of the tribulations currently experienced by the Owls on the diamond, The OG could not have picked a more pertinent statement to deliver to his weary team. The Owls have looked inept at varying times this season, but ardent observers would be hard pressed to find a game in which they failed so resoundingly in all three phases as they did on Tuesday night in Austin at Disch-Falk Field against No. 9 Texas.

Offense? Two measly hits, none against Texas' second-tier arms Sam Stafford, Hoby Milner and Stayton Thomas. Defense? Two errors, including a costly two-base miscue that opened the sixth inning, a passed ball and three stolen bases allowed. Pitching? Six walks, three wild pitches, two hit batsmen and just one strikeout. Irony of ironies? Jr. LHP Abel Gonzales pitched splendidly in relief of Anthony Fazio, yet for his efforts he was saddled with the loss.

But let's be honest: None of what happened against the Longhorns was aberrant. The Owls themselves are quick to admit disappointment over their 12-10 start, and in many ways they are as flummoxed by their inability to get everything clicking simultaneously as anyone else. When the pitching is sufficient the offense scuffles, and when the offense succeeds the pitching stinks. The defensive liabilities of late are particularly troubling given the need for one phase to remain stout. It is akin to a vessel taking on water, with each gap plugged giving way to another leak elsewhere. There are only so many thumbs available for duty it seems.

Thankfully, The OG remains admirably optimistic. Ponder leaping off the bandwagon, and his words keep you aboard. Begrudgingly contemplate missing the final CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium, and The OG quickly points out the available talent on his roster. Now, that talent isn't delivering at the present time, but on Friday in Memphis the season begins anew for the Owls.

OFFENSE

The numbers don't lie. Last season the Owls hits .320/.392/.490, and with every key contributor aside from 2B Brock Holt returning, expectations were that Rice would feature one of the top lineups in the nation. By any definition, .278/.374/.441 doesn't conjure intimidation.

Factors? Losing Diego Seastrunk (.290/.389/.419) for a dozen games didn't help. His switch-hitting bat is far too valuable to marginalize and, along with Jeremy Rathjen, represents one of two halfway legitimate options to bat cleanup (more on that later). The Owls might have won nine of 12 games without GDG available, but they certainly lost any opportunity to establish an offensive identity. Perhaps now that GDG is back to form, the Owls can begin to find their way.

However, reinserting GDG back into the order won't solve the issue of an All-American caliber shortstop batting .267/.333/.419 or two veteran all-conference candidates in the outfield batting .270/.303./349 and .205/.283/.241 with a combined one home run and 13 RBIs in 146 at-bats. When slumps are prolonged thoughts turn to introducing veterans to the bench. But that is a slippery slope, especially when those vets remain vital to the success of the team.

"That's the thing that managers always think over - whether it's better to sit a player for a game or two that you know you can't reach your goals without," The OG said. "I'm not sure that's good or bad. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and watching it over the years I've got to say it really doesn't matter. You're just as well off letting them play through it as you are letting them sit through it because players do slump and they do come out of it."

For all the experience the Owls returned at the plate, two vulnerabilities regarding their lineup were evident during fall ball and preseason workouts. The Owls lack a traditional leadoff hitter, and aside from superstar So. 3B Anthony Rendon, they are bereft of a classic cleanup option.

Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree (.266/.412/.443) opened the season atop the order, and he has 15 starts there. But film has produced evidence that Ratterree performs better when he has had an opportunity to watch opposing pitchers work to hitters ahead of his spot in the order (Ratterree has also hit third, sixth and seventh). His on-base percentage is sufficient for the role, but Ratterree has appeared more comfortable when he hits down in the lineup. The OG has tinkered with Jr. RF Chad Mozingo and Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota (.246/.333/.410) atop the order, but neither has hit with the authority to earn ceaseless chances. The search continues.

"Ratterree is about as good as we've had in terms of his numbers, but his numbers don't tell the tale," The OG said.

And for all of the clamoring to elevate Rendon (.344/.570/.813) one spot in the order, who is deserving to bat cleanup and provide protection? RS So. LF Michael Fuda (.360/.441/.517) and his nation-leading 32 strikeouts? Rathjen (.294/.333/.627), who is tied for second on the club with 16 RBIs but has 17 strikeouts in 51 at-bats? Options are limited, although GDG may fit the bill should he settle in and hit at a clip similar to his sophomore season (.353/.393/.504).

"The only cleanup hitter you've got is him," The OG said of Rendon, who paces the Owls in RBIs with 23 despite being walked an unfathomable 33 times (by comparison, Rendon walked 31 times in 61 starts while posting a .461 on-base percentage as a freshman). "You don't have anyone else that even comes close to functioning in the cleanup spot. The best hitter to hit behind Rendon right now is Seastrunk, and to me that's not even conjecture."

PITCHING

Yeah, what Denny Green said.

No one pulled the wool over your eyes. It was no secret that the Owls' pitching would be serviceable at best, terrible at worst and, unlike the offense, the pitching has met expectations. The staff has been mediocre, albeit some of the numbers and results are a tad perplexing.

So. LHP Taylor Wall has a .227 BAA and a 5.97 ERA. It might take Bill James a lifetime to find such an odd statistical pairing, numbers that showcase how well Wall has pitched in spots and how poorly he's pitched with runners on base (20 of the 38 batters who reached against Wall via hit, walk or HBP have scored). The WHIP (1.26) is manageable, but when runners reach they score, as evidenced by both of his home runs against Cal being of the three-run variety. Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou has been solid, but for a pitcher with strikeout stuff, 12 Ks in 30.2 innings won't cut it. Given how shaky the defense has been of late, allowing nearly every opposing batter to put the ball in play is a risky proposition, and the 18 free passes don't help.

Sr. RHP Jared Rogers has been hit hard (.292 BAA) but has minimized the damage with just five walks. He's the Bizarro Taylor Wall. Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani (1-0, 7.52) has been pulled from the weekend rotation and is undergoing a complete overhaul of his arm action, a la Bryce Cox. His WHIP (1.77), bloated ERA, inability to hold runners, and general wildness (three wild pitches, two hit batsmen, two balks) warranted the move. The bullpen has been better than expected, with Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey (2-0, 3.12), Jr. LHP Doug Simmons (1-0, 1.69), Fr. LHP Holt McNair (1-0, 1.80) and Gonzales (2-3, 3.31) excelling. If Fr. RHP J.T. Chargois continues to come on, Sr. RHP Mike Ojala regains his command coming off Tommy John surgery, and RHPs Matthew Reckling and Mark Haynes uptick just a tad, the bullpen will be set. At this point, the rotation requires some TLC, but everyone realized that before the season opened.

DEFENSE

The Owls have been officially charged with 24 errors, but The OG believes at least five more should be on their ledger. The outfield defense, touted before the season began, has been poor, with dropped/grossly misplayed balls in right costing the Owls at least two games. Misjudged or cautiously played balls in center and left have resulted in runs for the opposition, and given the speed of the four outfielders in the rotation, such miscues are hardly acceptable.

Ratterree had played well at second before a recent rash of errors in San Diego, but Hague has struggled making routine throws for most of this season. It's hard to quantify the pressure draft prospects are burdened with, particularly elite prospects such as Hague. It's easy to stand on the sideline and proclaim that players in his position should block out said pressure, but in some cases millions of dollars ride on every performance. Not only is every at-bat scrutinized, but every throw and foot shuffle is subject to ridicule and scorn. That's difficult.

"You've got right now six or seven players, maybe more, with advisers," The OG said.

Opponents have swiped 23 bases in just 27 attempts, but that burden doesn't belong to the catchers alone. Besides, GDG has made just two starts behind the plate, and with his anticipated return on defense this coming weekend, his arm strength might make a difference.

"Our defense should have been our strength. It should have been great," The OG said. "We basically have not played defense at any level - catching, infield or outfield - that we expected, but that could (turn) too. Any optimism is based on the fact that you know the talent is there."

That fact is irrefutable, as is the truth that of the Owls' 10 losses, three have come by only one run and four by just two runs. Even the most recent setback against Texas included a fluke frame where four runs were allowed to score without the benefit of a base hit, so all told the Owls have been hammered only twice in 22 games. Put that number in perspective as you roll over in your mind everything that has gone wrong up to this point, and consider the recovery.

With Memphis and the rest of C-USA on the horizon, are the Owls' prospects truly that bleak?

"For everybody going into conference it's a new season," The OG said. "You obviously feel like with the level of talent we have and with it being a new season. and that's the way we'll treat it, everything up to now was training. All up to now was exposing your warts and trying to get rid of them. Now is the time to focus and trust yourself and get in a state of heightened awareness and play ball. And enjoy it."

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9 Comments

Fantastic piece, MK

So Rendon will remain in the 4 hole? [begin rant] ARGHHH!!! How many times must he lead off an inning to move him up one spot??? Who cares if he's the "prototypical" cleanup hitter? Of course the answer to this is to have the guys in front of AR get on base - of course that trumps all scenarios, but we just haven't seen that this year.[/end rant]

So who might fill Cingrani's spot in the rotation? Rogers, most likely?

Taylor Wall's stats with runners on base are certainly cause for concern. Is he mentally breaking down on the mound when faced with that pressure? Is he having issues pitching out of the stretch? Some of both?

Despite all of the "warts" that have been exposed, I remain very optimistic, as well. What we've learned over the past 4 years is that your team needs to catch fire at the right time. Oregon State (x2) and Fresno State taught us that (painfully). Our ship may have taken on some water, but we are far from sunk!

MK, you stole the title of my Memphis Preview!!! "A New Beginning/A Fresh Start". While I'm trying to stay optimistic, my concern is that our problem appears to be 90% mental, and it takes winning to regain that confidence necessary to restore one's mental state. It's a viscious cycle.

MK,

Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed it. Obviously love the Graham quotes that you don't get anywhere else. Also appreciate you being the first to mention the elephant in the room, draftitis by any other name. The subtlety of your prose keeps me coming back for more.

MK, nice piece. It hasn't been the Rice baseball we're accustomed to, but there's still plenty of time for the guys to figure out stuff that works.

Like everyone else, I just don't get the decision to bat AR 4th. There is no protection for a player like Rendon, all you can do is hope to have men on base in front of him so that they have to pitch to him. That is not facilitated by pushing him down the order and putting strikeout machines in front of him. Will it changes things that much to bat him 3rd? I don't know, but it will at least eliminate a bunch of unhappy posts on the game threads every time he starts off an inning.

With the pitching, I'm really surprised we haven't used our freshmen more often. These are guys that came in billed with live arms going 91-92, but we haven't seen any of Spurlin or McDowell. Spurlin came in and walked a few guys and hasn't been seen since.. makes you wonder if Wade Townsend would have ever cracked the rotation on this squad, because he had similar issues at the start of his seasons. If the offense is rolling and the D is solid, then you can employ a pitch to contact strategy, and throw out guys like Rogers, and Boogie, and Abel, and Haynes that are all pretty hittable and get by with that in good shape. But that's not the case, and I think we'd be better off developing arms with more live stuff that can miss bats.

I can empathize with our juniors and the pressure they must be under. That's life though, so hopefully it will be a great learning experience for them. Regardless of how the next few months turn out, they all have very bright futures ahead.

Win or lose, they guys will have our support. Go Owls.

Success begets success. Sweep Memphis!

Minor clarification on the Winston Churchill quote. It comes from a speech he made at the Harrow School (his alma mater) in October 1941. He actually said "never give in" rather than "never give up". Here is the context:

"But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period--I am addressing myself to the School--surely from this period of ten months [since his previous visit to Harrow], this is the lesson:

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

"We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.

"Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer."

But we have players with imminent draft prospects and the accompanying pressure every year. That's a constant, not a variable. And in years past those players haven't cratered so spectacularly as the juniors this year have. Sultzbaugh had draft pressure last year, and is doing worse this year as a senior. There is something different at work here. These guys are just slumping, but to have 4-5 key players, of known talent, slump together simultaneously, not to mention mental errors spreading through the team, even to non-draft pressured players, speaks to something else being awry. I certainly have no idea what it is. And I'm sure the ever-present draft pressure isn't helping the issue.

MK, I think it is easy to overlook just how good the starting pitchers we’ve faced this year are.

Stanford: Brett Mooneyham (#21), Scott Snodress (#83), and Jordan Pries (#291) are all top prospects for the 2011 draft at PGcrosschecker.com. Mooneyham is BA’s #15 sophomore draft prospect.
Elon: Jimmy Reyes was the Southland Conference pre-season pitcher of the year.
Nebraska: Michael Mariot throws in the 90’s and was noted by PGcrosschecker as having “early-round ability”
Texas State: Carson Smith throws in the mid-90’s and according to BA “has exploded onto the prospect radar” and has scouts “buzzing”
UT: Taylor Jungmann is a consensus top-5 draft prospect for 2011.
Texas Tech: Bobby Doran throws in the mid-90’s, was a collegebaseballblog Top 100 sleeper, was a 36th round draft pick by the Pirates last year, was a college impact sleeper at pgcrosschecker, and was the Jayhawk League’s #1 prospect last summer (PGcrosschecker) or #2 (BA).
TCU: Kyle Winkler drafted in the 37th round in 2008, about which BA said, “in terms of stuff and effectiveness, Winkler may be the best high school pitcher in the state of Texas.” #40 sophomore draft prospect at BA.
Cal: PGcrosschecker said that Dixon Anderson, Erik Johnson, and Justin Jones “all have top-3 round raw stuff.” Johnson is the #117 2011 draft prospect at PGcrosschecker. Justin Jones was a 7th round pick last year and was BA’s #39 freshman draft prospect (#45 at PGcrosschecker). Dixon Anderson was BA’s #37 sophomore draft prospect.
UT: Austin Dicharry is the #46 2011 draft prospect at BA.
San Diego: Sam Solis has 1st round pick ability and was BA’s #17 sophomore, Kyle Blair is projected 1st rounder and BA’s #13 junior, Matt Thompson was a 12th round pick last year and BA’s #11 senior (#10 at PGcrosschecker), AJ Griffin was a 34th rounder last year and BA’s #15 senior (#19 at PGcrosschecker).

Take that in for a second. BA rated 50 top draft prospects in each class (200 total, approximately 100 pitchers) and Rice has faced 10 of them in the first third of the season (Mooneyham, Jungmann, Winkler, Jones, Anderson, Dicharry, Solis, Blair, Griffin, and Thompson)! Even the guys that weren’t pre-season rated anywhere like Reyes (Elon), Mariot (Nebraska), and Smith (Texas State) are all generating early buzz and have very good arms.

I knew we faced ridiculously good pitching, but until I really looked at it all on paper, I had no idea. I think you can make a credible argument that we have faced 14 starters that might get drafted in the first 5 rounds of their drafts (Mooneyham, Snodgress, Mariot, Smith, Jungmann, Doran, Winkler, Anderson, Johnson, Jones, Dicharry, Blair, Solis, Griffin).

All hail Anthony Rendon for putting up the numbers he has against some of the best pitching in college baseball. Now lets see how the rest of the offense can function against “normal” college pitching.

mrbig: Those reports are telling, but they also reflect the best-case evaluation of those prospects. I wasn't impressed with any of the pitchers Stanford trotted out there, and a handful of the others mentioned have been pedestrian thus far. Again, no one is expecting the Owls to be the '27 Yankees, but at the same time a group this talented and experienced shouldn't make every opposing pitcher look like Jungmann. There are far too many hardened vets in this lineup for the Owls to appear so meek at times. Perhaps the opportunity to face inferior pitching will get this offense going, but if the ultimate goal is Omaha, the Owls will have to hit quality pitching somewhere down the line. And the ultimate goal remains Omaha. - MK

I mostly agree with your points, particularly about needing to be able to win against good pitching in the playoffs.

My interest was picqued this past weekend facing Blair and Solis, with the knowledge we had already faced Jungmann. I had no idea the guys from Stanford and Cal were so well-regarded coming into the year, or that the Nebraska, Texas State, Texas Tech, or TCU starters were getting lots of buzz.

Still, the more I look at what we have faced, the less bad I feel about starting 12-10. Still disappointing to be sure. But we've lost games against Jungmann, Blair, Solis, all who could be 1st round picks. We lost 3 1-run games (Jungmann, Mooneyham, Solis) and 4 two-run games (Pries, Johnson, Jones, Blair). 7 losses by 11 total runs (only 2 games at home) where the opposing starting pitcher will be a high draft pick. So even playing poor (for us), we are barely losing against the best pitchers in the country.

If the offense ever gets rolling, those 1 to 2 run losses will be 1 to 2 run wins.

mrbig: I made your final point in the post, and in all truth that fact should give rise to hope. Even if the Owls won just over half of those seven winnable games, their record stands at 16-6, a mark that, given their relatively poor play, most would feel much better about. Of course it's not just about the record but the level of play, and that has to improve regardless of the projectability of the opposing pitcher. - MK

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