April 2010 Archives
In what will be a non-conference contest that should benefit both parties, Rice and Texas State rescheduled their game originally slated for Feb. 23 at Reckling Park and postponed by inclement weather. The Owls and Bobcats will meet at The Reck on Tuesday, May 4 at 3 p.m.
The afternoon start time is a concession to Texas State (25-14, 15-6 Southland), which begins final exams the following day and needs to return to San Marcos by a decent hour in the event its student-athletes need to complete some last-minute preparations. Rice officials floated the date to Texas State, which cleared the added contest with its administration. With that initial hurdle scaled Rice officials did the same, seeking approval to play on the penultimate day of final exams. That petition was approved, and according to Rice officials, an overwhelming majority of the active roster will have completed finals by Tuesday, thus no schedule conflicts.
The 28th-ranked Owls (26-16, 11-4 C-USA) certainly need any RPI boost they can muster. The Owls are currently 26th in RPI while Texas State is 38th
. The Bobcats' RPI is the best of the teams remaining on the Owls' regular-season schedule, and a victory on Tuesday would help offset the RPI drag the Owls will suffer hosting Texas Southern (RPI: 260) the following evening. When it comes down to the selection committee sorting through candidates for hosting an NCAA regional, Rice will benefit from playing a quality opponent like Texas State.
"It was a game that was supposed to be played anyway, and good competition gets us ready for the weekend (at Marshall)," The OG said. "We're two games under the (56-game) limit so we always like to play a full schedule, and since finals are over there's no reason not to play it if we can.
"Beating Texas State is a pretty tough go - they're good. It could end either way, but nevertheless that's the risk you take anytime you play a good team."
The Bobcats sit atop the Southland standings
, but the Owls defeated Texas State in San Marcos 5-0 on March 3. By rescheduling against the Bobcats, the Owls will cut into their hiatus for finals. However, they are set for intrasquads on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
What a difference four weeks make. On March 30, the Owls needed a 7-2 victory over Lamar
in Beaumont to avoid lugging a .500 record into this month. That win was rather pedestrian, but the result greatly appreciated after the Owls stumbled their way through a series loss at Memphis. One 12-4 stretch later, and the Owls are eying yet another Conference USA crown and (keep your fingers crossed) an opportunity to host the Houston Regional at The Reck.
There is much work left to do on both fronts, but at least the Owls will have a period to breathe a bit before they resume their schedule next Wednesday against Texas Southern. One month ago the bottom was perilously close to falling out on the season, but the offense found its groove with Jr. RF Chad Mozingo nestled atop the order, Sr. C/DH Diego Seastrunk providing protection for the Owls' cleanup hitter, So. 3B Anthony Rendon, So. OF Jeremy Rathjen emerging as a legit power threat, and Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota morphing into Lou Gehrig.
The pitching has developed, somewhat, with So. LHP Taylor Wall embracing his role as the staff ace and Sr. RHP Mike Ojala looking more like his old self with each appearance. Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey appears to have found his second wind operating from the back of the bullpen, and while the staff continues to scuffle with inconsistency, there do seem to be enough arms available to piecemeal through a conference tournament and NCAA regional, no matter the locale. A rock-solid third starter would be a welcome addition, as would consistent righthanded relief out of the bullpen. But at least the Owls have seen flashes of both over the past month.
While the Owls spend the next week relishing their exemplary effort of late, they must resist the urge to look ahead. Now that they have crept back into the national rankings, talk surrounding the program is centered on hosting a regional. Given their current RPI (26
) and the strength of their remaining schedule, the Owls don't appear in control of their destiny regarding hosting. If they were to win both the C-USA regular-season and tournament titles, and do so with, say, a 14-2 record over those corresponding 16 games, the Owls would stand at 40-18 heading into the NCAA Tournament. The combination of an extraordinary finish (26-6 over the final two months) plus the program's sterling postseason reputation would certainly solicit a second look from the selection committee. Their RPI wouldn't be deserving, but The Reck is an ideal setting for a regional, and it wouldn't be this staff's first rodeo. It seems 40 victories might do the trick if the Owls got a little external aid, but counting those wins in advance is folly for a squad that still hasn't reeled off a win streak of greater than five games.
But, again, Rice is 12-4 in April, with three of those losses coming by just one run. If the Owls were that
close to 15-1, 14-2 isn't impossible. Sweep the home games against TSU, UAB and Southern Miss, finish 4-0 at the C-USA tournament, and go no worse than 3-2 in five road games at Marshall, Oklahoma State and UH. OK, self-imposed moratorium on that
Who ya got for your C-USA postseason honorees? It appears that the Player of the Year race has been narrowed to five candidates, with East Carolina Sr. 1B/DH Kyle Roller the final member of that group to be involved in games including the Owls. Here's my current ballot:
1. UCF Sr. OF Chris Duffy
2. Rice So. 3B Anthony Rendon: .378/.535/.748
3. Tulane RS So. 3B Rob Segedin: .425/.500/.830
4. UCF Sr. OF Shane Brown: .427/.542/.665
5. East Carolina Sr. 1B/DH Kyle Roller: .353/.536/.669
Duffy leads the league in hits (73), RBIs (60), homers (16) and total bases (138). Those numbers are hard to discredit, even when discussing the supremely talented Rendon, who paces C-USA in runs (50) and walks (48). Rendon
will get to pad his stats at Marshall and against the pitching staffs of UAB and Southern Miss, both of which sport ERAs of 5.68. As the incumbent, Rendon might need only to bypass Duffy in the power numbers to claim his second consecutive C-USA POY award, but it's going to be a close finish with the pollsters.Southern Miss Jr. RHP Todd McInnis
, the Preseason Pitcher of the Year, has the inside track for the postseason award. He leads the league in ERA (3.14) and innings pitched (66.0), while ranking second in BAA (.218) and third in strikeouts (67). However, Owls Sr. LHP Taylor Wall is closing fast, and if I can convince voters to use only C-USA stats when considering the finalists, Wall will be difficult to deny if he maintains his current clip with three league starts left.
In C-USA games, Wall leads the league in ERA (2.04), BAA (.171), innings pitched (35.1) and wins (three), and is tied for third in strikeouts (26). He has the edge over McInnis in every category, so if he keeps it up, and if the voters get smart, Wall might clip McInnis at the tape.
Anyone remember this asinine talent evaluation
? Well, it just so happened that two members to the top 20 shared the same field this weekend at The Reck. Surely a comparison is in order.
For the sake of clarity, let us identify one gifted sophomore third baseman as Player A, and let us label one slugging senior first baseman as Player B. Both started all three games during this weekend's series and, coincidentally, both logged 13 at-bats over that three-game span:
Player A: .462/.462/1.000 w/two 2B, one 3B, one game-winning three-run HR, and five RBIs.
Player B: .154/.214/.154 w/two 1B, no extra-base hits and one RBI on a ground out to second.
Too small a sample size? Let's crunch the numbers from both players for the entire season:
Player A: .378/.535/.748 w/14 HR and 49 RBIs.
Player B: .353/.536/.669 w/9 HR and 41 RBIs.
Now keep in mind that Player A has posted his numbers against far superior competition (Strength-of-Schedule: 11) as compared to Player B (SoS: 124), and has done so playing home games in a notoriously pitcher-friendly park. Player B has enjoyed the luxury of hitting in a bandbox 29 times already this year while taking to the road for only a dozen games. Player A has made 42 starts at a premium defensive position; Player B has started 21 games at DH.
These statistics have been presented without bias.
After committing four errors at Texas A&M on Tuesday, Jr. SS Rick Hague didn't need a recorder in his face and a note pad scribbling away detailing what was a forgettable game on his behalf. And after The OG opted to remove Hague from his position at short, it seemed proper to allow him a few days to digest the decision before being asked to provide opinion.
After his 4-for-6 night at the plate in his debut at designated hitter, his first start this season at a position other than shortstop, Hague opened up about the difficulties of the past few days.
"I'm just disappointed in what's going on," he said. "I expect more from myself, obviously. That game was lost by me. That's hurting the team, and I just want to be able to help the team."
Hague on his stellar showing at the plate in the Owls' 20-3 victory over No. 21 East Carolina
: "I guess it makes me feel better that I can do something for us and contribute a little bit.
"It was just like a big monkey off my back to be able to come out and kind of open it up early."
Hague now has 13 multi-hit games and five multi-RBI games. His four-hit game was his second this season, and Hague noted that he has felt more relaxed at the plate of late.
The OG said he is leaning toward starting the same lineup against the Pirates on Saturday. The Owls had 20 hits in 44 at-bats Friday night, including seven extra-base hits. They finished with six stolen bases while forcing three errors on ECU catcher Jared Avchen. In 13 Conference USA games, the Owls are batting .360/.445/.530 with 15 homers and 118 RBIs.
I know this much is true
: Jr. SS Rick Hague will not play shortstop in the foreseeable future. He worked out in left field on Wednesday, but chances are good that he will serve as the Owls' designated hitter until another course of action is selected. The supplanting of Hague at short is not necessarily permanent, but it very well could be. The entire situation remains fluid.
Let's set the dominoes. Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota will replace Hague at short. Comerota, of course, is a capable defensive replacement - he is SAK
after all - for he manned short at Hightower High and played nearly flawless defense there during fall ball. He is an above-average Division I shortstop defensively, and his bat hasn't been anything to sneeze at of late.
The Owls conduced a closed practice on Wednesday while auditioning for a replacement for Comerota at first. Jr. Abel Gonzales spelled Comerota when Hague was benched at Memphis, but there is some concern that asking Gonzales to play defense for an extended period will undermine his terrific contributions out of the bullpen. Gonzales has been the Owls' most reliable and capable reliever, so perhaps it serves the team best to allow him to remain focused on that role. Perhaps Gonzales plays first base Friday, but beyond that who knows.
Fr. IF/RHP J.T. Chargois is a talented fielder. He served as the backup to Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree last fall and would have filled that role this spring had he not returned from the holiday break with an illness. His athletic gifts are undeniable, and he is a capable hitter, but his level of proficiency at first is a concern. Chargois might be a viable candidate in the distant future, but asking him to step in for a key series against East Carolina is asking a bit much.
Fr. IF/RHP Tyler Spurlin played a ton of first base during the offseason, but again, asking a true freshman with limited experience to start against the Pirates with first place in Conference USA on the line is a daunting request. That fact makes So. C Craig Manuel a particularly intriguing option. He is reliable, has good hands, provides a steady lefthanded bat and, better still, is wholly committed to the task. When the workout concluded on Wednesday, Manuel remained behind and extended his session. His range is not ideal, but he knows the defensive schemes inside and out. If one seeks dependability and competence, Manuel is your man.
With Hague at DH, one of three outfielders will see his playing time slashed. The Owls had been rotating Michael Fuda (.336/.417/.473) and Jeremy Rathjen (.336/.391/.607) at LF/DH while Rathjen also platooned with Sr. Steven Sultzbaugh (.281/.333/.377) in center. All three are righthanded hitters, so overall productivity could be the determining factor for who sits.
Hague (.290/.351/.471 w/6 homers and 25 RBIs) will remain a part of the offense, and in due time may ultimately reclaim his position. Internally everyone is rooting for Hague, who in three games this season played defense described as ' high major-league' caliber at short. While the first obligation remains with the team, there is a delicate balancing act of trying to help Hague regain his swagger. Approaching this problem clinically is the current course of action.
As difficult as it might be to believe, something good did develop from the Owls' 7-1 loss to Texas A&M in College Station on Tuesday night
. The Owls' pressing concerns over righthanded relief have been discussed at length in this space, but against the Ags the Owls took a small step forward in building righthanded bullpen depth to complement southpaws Abe Gonzales, Doug Simmons and Holt McNair, all of whom have produced beyond expectations.
Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou enjoyed arguably his best outing of the season, surrendering only one hit through four innings before his defense failed him with one out in the nightmarish fifth. His fastball was lively and his command of his breaking ball superior, but of greater importance is the fact that Anagnostou felt good about himself following his performance. When The OG lifted Anagnostou in the fifth, he instructed him that he could be used in relief against East Carolina. If Anagnostou continues to throw strikes and trust his defense, as wobbly as it has been of late, he will be a factor down the stretch and into the postseason.
For a second consecutive Tuesday, a freshman RHP emerged to give The OG another option to consider. Last week in Huntsville it was Jeremy Fant; last night College Station native Chase McDowell made his first mound appearance in two months and worked two shutout innings of one-hit ball, fanning two in the process. Just as Fant earned another look last night, expect McDowell to earn the same once the Owls return to action following their finals hiatus.
How the pitching staff unfolds remains the biggest mystery relative to the 2010 Owls. The OG pointed out that he used just five pitchers - Jeff Niemann, David Aardsma, Wade Townsend, Philip Humber and Josh Baker - in Omaha during the Owls' national championship run in 2003, thus if the Owls were to avoid the losers' bracket in a regional or at the CWS, five trustworthy pitchers could be sufficient. The Owls appear to currently have five pitchers that fit that tag: So. LHP Taylor Wall, Sr. RHP Mike Ojala, Sr. RHP Jared Rogers, Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey and Gonzales. I would argue that supreme talent had more to do with the Owls' needing just five pitchers to work their way through the bracket in Omaha seven years ago, but The OG's point is well taken. Would the Owls be better off if they could extend the number of reliable pitchers to eight in advance of the postseason? Yes. So, who are the other three?
Anagnostou should be on that short list. Simmons, given the right circumstances (which don't include the bases loaded with one out) should be, too. McNair has carved a niche as a situational lefthander, but it would be wonderful if another RHP filled that final void. Fant? McDowell? Or perhaps Fr. J.T. Chargois, should he suddenly create some tilt on his curveball? All are viable options, so expect The OG to continue auditions in search of the final candidate.
Of course, something terribly troubling unfolded at A&M, and it had nothing to do with defense. The ugly loss to A&M hurt because it represented the Owls' final chance to gain a significant RPI boost. Currently the Owls are on the outside of the bubble looking in with regards to hosting a Houston Regional, and while the setback had minimal negative impact on their RPI (down to 29 from 26), the Owls won't get another shot to drastically improve their RPI over their final 15 games of the regular season. Here is their remaining opponents' current RPIs
East Carolina (3): 68
@Marshall (3): 134
@Oklahoma State: 130
Southern Miss (3): 105
UAB (3): 136
There were whispers that Rice should consider swapping its date with TSU for a non-conference game with Texas State (RPI: 46) in order to make up an earlier date that was rained out. Rumors of such a move have not been broached, let alone confirmed, but given the daunting possibility of being a No. 2 seed in Austin or Baton Rouge, Rice should consider all options that might boost its slim hopes for opening the NCAA Tournament at The Reck.
On one hand, if you were unable to make the trip to Orlando and missed the Owls' taking of a tense series from UCF at Jay Bergman Field, you lost out on an opportunity to witness just how hardened the Owls have become the past few weeks. The same players whose desire to compete in every pitcher-batter confrontation was once brazenly questioned by The OG have repeatedly proven of late that if they're going down, they won't do so without a back alley fight.
On the other hand, if prior plans preempted your attendance at Rice-UCF, you had the great fortune of avoiding excessive exposure to the bush-league antics of UCF coach Terry 'Rocky'
Rooney. In an attempt to garner additional attention for a program teeming with talented underclassmen recruited with his deft touch, Rooney consulted the book of clownish coaching theatrics, and he didn't deviate from the classic and contrived antics utilized by buffoonish managers of the past. All the tried and true methods for making a scene were on full display.
The Usain Bolt agitated sprint from the dugout to protest an innocuous call? Flawless execution. The aggressive index finger jut at the umpire's sternum aimed to show everyone in attendance just how vehemently one disagrees with a dubious call? Absolutely perfect form. The peacock strut, with hands wedged in rear pants pockets while the head and neck bob to and fro, face red and eyes wide with righteous indignation? Earl Weaver
would be proud.
Given the circumstances and what was at stake - UCF had subtly framed the series as the most significant in program history - one outburst was understandable. Four was gratuitous. There was nothing sincere about what Rooney was doing, for his primary objective was to whip the crowd into a lather and inspire his players to perform out of their minds. He failed on both counts, making his utter lunacy even more deplorable. Rooney has done a masterful job assembling young talent at UCF, and if the Knights can overcome the loss of a couple program stalwarts (Sr. OFs Chris Duffy and Shane Brown) next season, Rooney will have them challenging for league supremacy. His recruiting has been that
good, without question.
That's what made his histrionics unnecessary. If UCF doesn't get to the top of Conference USA this season, they just might next season or in 2012 (if the Knights aren't in the Big East by then). But instead of leaving impressed with Fr. SS Darnell Sweeney and Fr. CF Ronnie Richardson, I came away mortified that a college coach would conduct himself in such a juvenile manner on such a stage. UCF, the Knights and their fans deserved so much better.
[Ed. note: Kudos to Tim Henderson, Darrin Sealey and AJ Wendel for weathering the assault.
As for the Owls (23-15, 8-4 C-USA), their Bataan Death March continues on Tuesday against A&M (20-14-1, 6-8-1 Big 12) at Olson Field. Perhaps because both teams are unranked, this regional grudge match lacks its usual sizzle. The Owls might be rounding into form, but the Aggies (RPI: 37
) and East Carolina, which will pay a visit to The Reck this weekend, offer additional opportunities for the Owls to build a case to host an NCAA Regional (Outlandish? Perhaps). Sure, the Aggies were just humiliated at home by rival Texas to the tune of 22-0 in consecutive games on Saturday and Sunday, but this is still A&M. A shred of cache remains.
That thread appears mighty thin these days. Remember when A&M coach Rob Childress
was hired to lead the Aggies back to Omaha, where they haven't been in more than a decade? He seemed the perfect hire (personally I love the guy and believe he's an excellent coach, but I digress), and it didn't take Childress long to get the Aggies on the doorstep of the College World Series. There is no shame in losing consecutive Houston Super Regionals at Rice, but there can be no other word to describe what happened last season besides debacle
. From preseason No. 1 to eliminated at the Fort Worth Regional, the Aggies were the nation's most disappointing team in 2009. This season they are middling, and one can make a sound argument that A&M is at best the fourth-strongest program in the state behind Texas, Rice and TCU. Given its dollars and support (the
best crowd in college baseball - bar none), this is unacceptable. A&M should always be exceptional; sixth place in the Big 12
There will be plenty of time to get into No. 21 East Carolina
later this week, but like Rice, perhaps national pundits were too quick in kicking dirt on the Pirates' grave. ECU has won six in succession and, after being declared dead following the dismissal of Jr. SS Dustin Harrington on April 1
, the Pirates have worked their way into a share of first place in C-USA. Most assumed that Rice and ECU would duke it out for league supremacy, and while both have taken the circuitous route to the top of the heap, they are where they belong. The Pirates have played just eight road games this season and have three road series remaining in league play, so perhaps they have a tad more to prove than the Owls, who have already claimed road series at Tulane and UCF. Nevertheless, ECU will have the Owls' full attention this weekend.
- Let's be clear: While The OG and the Owls were disappointed with their approach at the plate against UCF righthander Owen Dew on Saturday, there should be no discounting how splendidly Dew pitched in handcuffing the Owls during the Knights' 6-4 win
During their 13-game run of offensive might, the Owls scored no fewer than five runs while averaging 10.2/game. The fewest runs Rice scored since Jr. RF Chad Mozingo became a fixture atop the order was five, and in that 6-5 loss to Tulane last Friday the Owls stranded 14 base runners - seven in scoring position. The Owls were batting .363 (178-for-490) during that stretch, and pretty much having their way against opposing pitchers, no matter their pedigree.
Dew put an end to all of that. While producing the longest outing for a UCF pitcher in over two years
, Dew needed just 108 pitches to work four batters deep into the ninth. He issued just two walks, did not allow an extra-base hit, and adroitly kept the slugging Owls off-balanced.
"He threw a two-seam (fastball) sometimes, he threw a four-seam sometimes," Owls Jr. SS Rick Hague said. "It was hard to read whether it was going to run in on your hands or stay over for a strike, and he just kept it down the whole game. We hit a few hard, but he did a good job of keeping it low and in and hitting his spots."
The Owls need to get back on their horse against Fr. LHP Joe Rogers, the alleged starter for UCF (there is some gamesmanship going on here). Win today (if we play; the tarp is on the field and gray skies are above) and all is right with the world. Lose, and the Owls surrender the momentum established by their third five-game winning streak this season. As wonderfully as Sr. RHP Jared Rogers pitched last Sunday, UCF isn't Tulane, so the Owls will have to win this key game and this series with offense. They are talented enough to meet that challenge.
- One can only hope that the Owls' spirits have been rejuvenated after being so thoroughly dominated over the last 4 1/2 innings of their series opener against UCF on Friday night. Given how much energy is expended staggering off of the ropes
, the Owls can only hope for the best today. If they are in the doldrums, perhaps Sr. RHP Mike Ojala can help.
Ojala (2-0, 4.50 ERA) will be extended to 70-75 pitches this afternoon. Given his exceptional outing last weekend in New Orleans against Tulane (5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K), the Owls realize that anything similarly as effective will set up their bullpen for a successful finish. LHPs Doug Simmons and Holt McNair both warmed up last night, so both should be raring to go if needed. Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey threw only 19 pitches in completing what So. LHP Taylor Wall started so brilliantly
(Wall limited UCF sluggers Shane Brown and Chris Duffy to a combined 0-for-6 with two walks) on Friday, so he too is ready if his No. 42 is called upon on the ninth.
The biggest positive from the early offensive eruption on Friday? So. DH Michael Fuda, whose three-run home run in the second got the party started and, hopefully, signaled an end to his relative slump at the plate. If Fuda can regain his touch with the bat, it spares the offense the strain of fretting too much over Sr. OF Steven Sultzbaugh, who is batting (.297/.366/.432) in Conference USA contests. Fuda will start in left this afternoon, bumping So. OF Jeremy Rathjen (.355/.403/.655 w/7 home runs and 40 RBIs) in 30 games) to center and Sultzbaugh to the bench. If Fuda continues to produce at the plate - he is batting .378/.415/.514 in league play - the Owls won't sweat what they might lose defensively given his cranky right elbow.
Speaking of offense, Jr. RF Chad Mozingo is hitting .568/.623/.727 in league play. That'll work.
- This is what a smidgen of success feels like. It's a bunch of confident, enthusiastic ballplayers conducting a crisp, efficient workout. There was no drudgery or pervasive duty-bound attitude at Jay Bergman Field on Thursday, but rather an air of positivity as the Owls prepared for their colossal series with UCF
. This is what one gets when victories come more often than defeats, particularly when the last three losses have come by one run.
Perhaps the Owls have finally come to the realization that they are immensely talented, or perhaps they simply decided to put those collective talents into practice. Holes remain on their pitching staff and, while the offense has been sizzling since Jr. RF Chad Mozingo moved atop the order, there are a couple of critical hitters mired in slumps. But no team is perfect, and it appears as though the Owls recognize that their attributes outweigh their deficiencies. They seem to be having fun playing the game they fell hopelessly in love with as optimistic youth.
Sitting in the dugout at Bergman Field, it's easy to gain perspective on why the Knights are batting .342/.433/.528. Although the wind was blowing in, the distance marker on the right-field wall just inside the foul pole read 320, and perhaps that reading is generous. When the wind whips out to right baseballs will follow, which explains in part why seven of the Knights' eight .300 hitters are either lefthanded or switch-hitters. Theirs is a dangerous lineup fronted by Sr. LF Chris Duffy (.447/.522/.879 w/14 homers and 51 RBIs), one so potent from the left side that The OG is committed to turning all three of those switch-hitters around to the right side. That lineup is why So. LHP Taylor Wall might need to deliver a signature performance, why Jr. LHP Doug Simmons was prepped for action against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, why Fr. LHP Holt McNair will be called upon to provide stellar relief, and why Jr. LHP Abel Gonzales just might earn his second start of the season on Sunday afternoon. If Cole St.Clair had any eligibility remaining, you could best believe The OG would have offered CSC air fare to Central Florida.
"We're going to use up every ounce of lefthanded pitching we've got," The OG said.
The Owls will not require Cy Young-esque pitching to claim this series and remain atop the Conference USA standings. UCF is a poor pitching (5.85 ERA, .310 BAA, 1.71 WHIP) and defensive (.959 fielding percentage) squad. The Knights will attempt to use their cozy dimensions and a prevailing wind to bash their way to victory, but the Owls will have the same environs at their disposal. The same offense that has hit .371/.456/.563 w/16 homers over the last 12 games (not to mention a plus-71 runs advantage, 19-of-23 stolen bases and a 68-to-61 BB-to-K ratio) should have a field day against the Knights' staff and defense. And while UCF has produced gaudy stats against suspect competition (SoS: 183), the Owls have competed against the eighth-toughest schedule in the nation. They are battle-tested, and given the results of the past dozen games, riding a crest of confidence that should yield a desired result.
On Thursday night the Owls appeared to enjoy practice. There is no reason why they should not enjoy playing UCF this showdown weekend, even with stakes being as high as they are.
A quick note before the Owls battle the Bearkats ...
The surprise start Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani is making tonight is more about UCF than Sam Houston State. The drastic retooling of his delivery was reduced to the quickening of his stride to home plate so that he could better manage holding runners at first. Not only did the staff realize that Cingrani was scuffling in that regard, Cingrani did as well, and because he was so aware of his shortcomings once a runner reached, it impacted his ability to focus on the hitter. All parties believe that Cingrani should be quicker to the plate, better at holding runners and, hopefully, more effective pitching with runners on base than he was his first five appearances.
Cingrani won't work more than three innings tonight. This outing will serve to mark the progress of his shortened stride and to prepare him for action for this weekend's key C-USA series at UCF. Of the 10 Knights with at least 90 at-bats, only four bat lefthanded. UCF does feature three switch-hitters, but the Owls would prefer that those three - Darnell Sweeney (.328/.380/.410), Ronnie Richardson (.299/.472/.416) and Ryan Breen (.373/.442/.597) - bat from the right side of the plate. Should the Knights sprinkle seven righties around slugger Chris Duffy (.458/.515/.907 w/13 homers and 48 RBIs), then so be it. Rice would rather face a righty-dominated lineup, which is why all the Owls' southpaws will be on alert. If Cingrani can help support Taylor Wall, Abel Gonzales, Holt McNair and Doug Simmons, all will be good.
While number-crunching on the road to Huntsville, I stumbled across some interesting stats. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Owls' pitching this season, their pitchers have produced surprisingly similar numbers in several key categories. Through 33 games, the Owls have the exact same opponent's OPS (.729) and WHIP (1.40) as they did through 61 games last season while the difference in BAA (.257 in 2009, .255 this season) is negligible. The reason behind the Owls' inflated ERA (4.48), which is more than a quarter-run higher than last season (4.21)? The startling inability to record strikeouts relative to last season's staff.
This season the Owls are averaging 5.9 Ks/9 IP and 1.53 Ks/BB as compared to 7.1 Ks/9 IP and 1.71 Ks/BB. This staff has struggled to command the breaking ball, which leads to one of three things with runners in scoring position: fastballs which opposing batters are prepared to hit, ineffective breaking balls, or off-speed pitches that have been fouled off with frequency. Anecdotally the Owls have struggled mightily pitching with runners in scoring position, and that is based largely on certain pitchers' inability to get the breaking ball over in key situations. Fewer strikeouts in those situations mean more balls put in play, which yields a spike in ERA.
Enjoy the game. I'll join J.P. Heath for the middle innings of tonight's broadcast.
Last weekend wasn't an aberration. The Owls' offensive eruption at Turchin Stadium wasn't about their catching fire or Tulane gagging in the moment or some cosmic alignment of the stars. The Owls simply unleashed their dormant might, and the Green Wave just happened to be the unwitting victims of a lineup that finally showcased the vast talent it always possessed.
Sure, there was some tinkering required along the way. The OG shuffled the chairs on the deck several times, fiddling with his batting order in an attempt to discover a sequence that would unlock all that potential. There was trial and error unquestionably, but it seemed only a matter of time before The OG reached the conclusion he did recently: Jr. RF Chad Mozingo belonged atop the order, and Sr. C Diego Seastrunk should protect So. 3B Anthony Rendon.
Why did it take so long to get here? Well, GDG missing 12 games due to an oblique strain didn't help matters, and neither did a flaw in Mozingo's swing that required tweaking. It's easy to forget that Mozingo missed all of fall ball recovering from offseason hand and ankle surgeries, and perhaps he needed something as simple as live at-bats to get things in order. As Mozingo began to work his way back into form and GDG reclaimed the spot in the starting lineup he lost due to injury, the wheels began to turn. Mozingo is a rare southpaw able to hit lefthanders better than righties, and GDG is a proven Division I hitter. Mozingo has the raw speed and deft bat-handling ability to thrive atop the order while GDG is such a proficient gap hitter that RBI opportunities would abound if opponents kept intentionally walking Rendon.
The first shoe to drop was Mozingo, and once he became entrenched as the leadoff hitter, the Owls started their uptick. In the 10 consecutive games in which Mozingo has hit atop the order, the Owls are 7-3. Each loss came by one run, including walk-off defeats at Memphis and Tulane. Since being two-hit by Texas in Austin on March 23, the Owls have recorded at least 10 hits in 12 of 14 games. With Mozingo batting first, they are averaging 9.3 runs/game.
GDG just might be the final piece to the puzzle. He hit fifth behind Rendon in all three games against Tulane and finished the weekend with a .429 (6-for-14) average and eight RBIs. He rediscovered his line-drive stroke and, through rigorous effort in the cage, regained confidence in his swing from the right side. He can now make teams rethink their approach with Rendon.
Tulane paid a steep price for the Owls getting their lineup in order. The Green Wave opened the weekend with an ERA of 4.18 and a BAA of .255. The Owls scored 35 runs in three games while hitting .414 for the series. They produced 18 extra-base hits, earned 22 free passes and swiped eight bases, and were it not for their leaving 32 runners on base (including 14 in Friday night's 6-5 loss), the Owls would have thoroughly crushed what was statistically the best staff on Conference USA. For all the talk of the Owls' offensive struggles being linked to the quality pitching they faced during the opening month of the season, the Owls proved what they can do against quality pitching when the picture that is their lineup is complete. Just ask Tulane.
Over the last 14 games Mozingo is hitting .439/.500/.561 and GDG .313/.364/.542 while nursing a cranky left heel. So. OF Jeremy Rathjen, who was named C-USA Hitter of the Week on Monday
and appears to have found a home hitting before Rendon, is batting .386/.438/.719 over those 14 games. The Owls are hitting .329/.410/.501 and are featuring the offense we expected all along. Their attitude should not be celebratory over their recent success but rather acceptance or the embracing of their potential. Their focus should be on laying waste to the staffs of Sam Houston State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and UCF. If the Owls could pound the Green Wave so mercilessly, the onslaught should continue this week:TEAM SoS ERA BAA WHIP
SHSU 62 5.80 .296 1.61
A&MCC 91 8.11 .347 1.92
UCF 189 5.84 .308 1.70
Don't discount the fact that Jr. SS Rick Hague, Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota and Sr. CF Steven Sultzbaugh are all multi-hit games against the Bearkats away from reaching the .300 benchmark for the season. Comerota is locked in the nine-hole, but Hague, Sultzbaugh, So. LF Michael Fuda and Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree might continue to move up and down the order. Should Hague remain hot perhaps he slides into the two-hole and bumps Ratterree down to sixth, where he might face a little less pressure. Or perhaps Fuda, with his blazing speed, is the answer between Mozingo and Rathjen, although he'd have to cut down on his strikeouts.
However the lineup shakes out over the last 20-plus regular season games, the Owls should approach the closing stretch with confidence. What they accomplished in Tulane didn't represent a best-case scenario, but rather how they should have been performing all along.
NEW ORLEANS -
The OG is not one for clichés, so when he uses one heed is taken. He described his present dealings with his pitching staff as 'circling the wagons' and proclaimed that experimentation, at least during the weekend, is over. Pitchers that have displayed control problems won't work during conference action barring extenuating circumstances. Given the Owls' mediocre RPI (47 according to Boyd Nation
), they can not afford to fritter away games via shaky pitching. Take a look at the stats
and deduce who will see the mound this weekend.
That edict explains in part why The OG will play his starting rotation by ear for a second consecutive weekend. One gets the sense that he'd love to name Jr. LHP Abel Gonzales as the Sunday starter, but with Sr. RHP Mike Ojala limited by a strict pitch count, Gonzales might be needed on Saturday should his penchant for stellar long relief save Rice in a pinch. The Owls have yet to establish a dominant righthander, which leaves the weekend rotation in flux.
By and large, The OG believes that most of the Owls' problems regarding their offense and defense are resolved. Injuries to Sr. C Diego Seastrunk (heel), So. LF Michael Fuda (elbow) and Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree (shoulder) have mucked up the proceedings, but the offense appears to be finding its stride. GDG will be a game-time decision behind the plate, but at the least he is available to DH. Fuda might remain limited but Ratterree seems intent to play through whatever discomfort he is dealing with. Not only has he displayed toughness and determination, he seems prideful of the fact that he and So. 3B Anthony Rendon are the only Owls to have started every game this season. Ratterree expresses an ideal attitude to thrive.
The lineup will be put to the test by the Green Wave. All three weekend starters (Jr. RHP Conrad Flynn, So. RHP Robby Broach, Jr. RHP Gunner Wright) sport ERAs at or below 3.40, and the bullpen is anchored by experienced veterans who have excelled previously: Jr. RHP Nick Pepitone, Sr. LHP Matt Petiton and Sr. RHP Preston Claiborne. Tulane statistically has the best staff in Conference USA, and for all the talk of how the Owls have scuffled against quality pitching, this weekend provides an opportunity to prove otherwise. The Owls have owned Tulane since the move to C-USA (12-0 against the Green Wave since the 2005 New Orleans Super Regional), and a series win would put the Owls back on track for a league title.
One 4-0 week should have taught everyone this one irrefutable fact: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over.
So much for writing off the Owls following their forgettable weekend in Memphis. The Cards
proved to be good for what ailed them and, suddenly, the Owls sit atop the Conference USA standings
tied with three teams including Tulane, which the Owls will visit this weekend. Will we learn more about the Owls based on their performance in New Orleans? Absolutely, but I would submit that we discovered plenty with their sweep of Lamar and UH.OFFENSE
It appears that The OG has found a leadoff hitter. How hot is Jr. RF Chad Mozingo? Not only is he batting .552 over his last seven games, his 16 hits during that span are just one shy of the 17 hits Mozingo had through 21 games entering the C-USA opener at Memphis. He has raised his batting average 90 points in a week, and during the Owls' five-game win streak Mozingo walked six times while striking out only twice. He has scored seven runs during that span. The notion of batting Mozingo leadoff wasn't foreign; he hit .426 for the Santa Barbara Foresters
while batting leadoff during the summer following his freshman season in 2008.
It seems clear that the remainder of the lineup, outside of cleanup hitter and So. 3B Anthony Rendon (.337/.529/.739 w/11 HRs & 34 RBIs), will fluctuate, and given the injury concerns with Sr. C Diego Seastrunk (heel, not ankle as previously reported), So. LF Michael Fuda (elbow) and Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree (shoulder), we might see an interesting lineup against Dallas Baptist on Tuesday
. All three remain game-time decisions, but just in case Ratterree and Fuda aren't available, Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota took infield at second base on Monday.
The Owls bumped their team average to .300 before falling to .296 with their eight-hit performance against UH in the series finale. It is safe to assume that as they get deeper into league play, where pitching is suspect throughout, the Owls might find their offensive footing. Mozingo, Ratterree and So. OF Jeremy Rathjen have been scorching at the plate, and if GDG and Jr. SS Rick Hague get going, this veteran lineup may finally live up to its advanced billing.PITCHING
Know who got an earful from The OG on Monday afternoon? The righthanded pitchers. With So. LHP Taylor Wall rediscovering his mojo
in the opener against UH, the Owls can boast the most productive quartet of southpaws in C-USA. Wall might not have the record (1-4) or ERA (4.43) he desires, but his BAA (.181) and WHIP (1.01) are exceptional. Mix in Jr. Abel Gonzales (3-3, 2.05 ERA, .196 BAA, 1.06 WHIP), Jr. Doug Simmons (1-0, 0.66 ERA, .111 BAA, 0.88 WHIP) and Fr. Holt McNair (1-0, 1.12 ERA, .233 BAA, 1.00 WHIP) and the Owls are rather salty from the left side of the rubber. If only they were as proficient from the right.
According to The OG, it's just a matter of establishing superior focus. RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio, for example, did not issue a walk in 10 IP last fall. He has walked nine batters in 11 IP this season, and similar issues are as correctable as any set of problems facing the Owls. Do Sr. RHP Jared Rogers, Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou, So. RHP Matthew Reckling and Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey have the stuff to be effective pitchers for the Owls? Of course they do, but they need to establish pinpoint control in order to maximize the impact they will have on this squad.
When Sr. RHP Mike Ojala returns to form several undecided roles will be determined. Perhaps the most challenging aspect to this season is displaying patience as Ojala works his way back.DEFENSE
GDG called two "beautiful" games that were "an inspiration" against UH before leaving with an inflamed left heel last Saturday. Not only does GDG stabilize the lineup, he provides additional oomph defensively. Should he and Ratterree be blessed with optimal health, the Owls will inch closer to establishing the up-the-middle defensive might they envisioned during the preseason. Hague was nothing short of brilliant at short on Saturday, and the platoon of Rathjen and Sr. Steven Sultzbaugh is sufficient in center. Comerota is a rock at first, but as he proved with flair last week, the Owls don't lose much defensively when Gonzales spells SAK.
If the mental obstacles that slowed the Owls earlier have been permanently removed, the defense will remain stout and will be of no concern as the second half of the season unfolds.