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May 2010 Archives

Road To Omaha Begins ... In Austin

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There wasn't much suspense behind the decision made by the NCAA Baseball Selection Committee to send the Owls to Austin for the NCAA Tournament. 2 Rice (38-21) will open the Austin Regional against 3 Louisiana-Lafayette (37-20) on Friday at 1 at The Disch. The Ragin Cajuns were regular-season co-champions of the Sun Belt along with FAU, and both clubs, in addition to Sun Belt tournament champion FIU, earned NCAA Tournament berths. What does it say about Conference USA that the Sun Belt garnered two at-large berths while, had Rice defeated Southern Miss Saturday night at Cougar Field, C-USA would have had just its lone automatic bid? It says that 2010 was a down season for a supposed league on the rise.

ULaLa is sure to throw Sr. RHP Zach Osborne (8-4, 2.56 ERA, .227 BAA, 1.01 WHIP) at the Owls (Rice is 28-12 vs. RHP). In fact, the Cajuns have just two LHPs among their top six in innings pitched (Jr. T.J Geith, Jr. Taylor Hubbell), so expect to see righties out of the ULaLa bullpen should Osborne struggle, including Jr. Joey Satriano and/or So. Dayton Marze. The Cajuns are like a poor coach's version of host 1 Texas - pitching-rich (3.39 ERA, .251 BAA, 1.24 WHIP, 406:240 K:BB/HBP) and offense-starved (.294/.374/.438 with 45 home runs). They are 100-for-124 in stolen bases, but their fielding percentage (.966) doesn't support their strong pitching. With minimal power and plus speed, it's clear what the Cajuns want to do on offense, and with an average of 7.1 Ks/9IP and just 240 free passes in 515.2 IP, their M.O. on the mound is obvious. Rice must focus on Louisiana, not Texas, this week in workouts.

The usual Cajuns lineup features three lefthanded batters, including Sr. CF Kyle Olasin atop the order and Jr. DH/IF Jordan Poirrier in the 3-hole. So. LF Alex Fuselier, a former two-way player, is the remaining lefty, and he typically bats somewhere in the middle of the order. Sr. C Chad Keefer (.333/.383/.591 with 15 homers and 57 RBIs) is the thumper and bats cleanup. This lineup screams for Owls. Sr. RHP Jared Rogers (8-1, 4.10 ERA, .277 BAA, 1.28 WHIP) to get the start and, coincidentally, it was Rogers who started against the Cajuns the last time these two programs met on March 12, 2009. Rogers' line: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K.

ULaLa (RPI: 44; ISR: 51; SoS: 97) has won 23 of its last 27 games, but went 2-&-Q in the Sun Belt tournament. The Cajuns dropped 2-of-3 against Southern Miss on March 5-7 and are 4-6 against the RPI top 50 and 15-17 against the top 100. They finished 21-9 in the Sun Belt.

This is the first time since 2005 that the Owls will hit the road for regional play. That season, with four freshmen in its starting lineup (1B Joe Savery, LF Jordan Dodson, CF Tyler Henley and C Danny Lehmann), Rice beat host LSU twice to take the Baton Rouge Regional before falling to No. 1 national seed Tulane in three games at the New Orleans Super Regional. The current lineup is almost a complete reversal of the '05 order with six of nine starters draft-eligible. Only So. DH Jeremy Rathjen, So. 3B Anthony Rendon and Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree are sure to return next season, so it will be interesting to see how these veterans handle the task of trying to stun No. 2 national seed UT at The Disch. More on that on the mothersite.

Some other tidbits from the Field of 64: The Austin Regional is paired with the Fort Worth Regional featuring 1 TCU, 2 Baylor, 3 Arizona and 4 Lamar. The Bears' late run in the Big XII and to the tournament title game likely earned their inclusion in the field, and in the minds of many, the Wildcats were the last team in. Lamar won the Southland tournament title. ... The Owls were one dropped fly ball away from winning their series at San Diego, which is the 2-seed at the Tempe Regional hosted by No. 1 national seed Arizona State. ... ACC regular-season champs and 2009 College World Series participant Virginia was inexplicably dropped to the No. 5 national seed, and will host 2 Ole Miss and National Pitcher of the Year candidate Jr. LHP Drew Pomeranz. ... The Los Angeles Regional earns 'Group of Death' distinction with No. 6 national seed UCLA, defending national champion (and SEC tournament champion) LSU, and UC Irvine, an annual threat to reach the CWS, serving as the top three seeds. Amazingly, ESPN will not broadcast from LA, option instead to feature the Fullerton Regional of 1 Cal State Fullerton, 2 Stanford, 3 New Mexico and 4 Minnesota. ... 

UConn is the lone 2-seed hosting, with 1 Florida State and 3 Oregon traveling to the Northeast in yet another attempt to 'grow the game' by the Committee. ... C-USA tournament champion Southern Miss is the 3-seed at the Auburn Regional featuring 1 Auburn, 2 Clemson and 4 Jacksonville State. ... It's clear that the check from the Oklahoma athletic department did not bounce because the Committee awarded the Sooners, arguably one of the final teams to earn a hosting slot, with a regional featuring an overseeded 2 (California) and a 3 that failed to make its conference tournament (North Carolina). At least 4 Oral Roberts is capable of stirring up some trouble at the Norman Regional. ... Georgia Tech over South Carolina as a national seed isn't that big a deal outside of the fact that it means the ACC had two national seeds as compared to one for the SEC (No. 3 Florida). Both leagues, along with the Pac-10, placed a whopping eight teams in the Field of 64. No. 4 Coastal Carolina reps the mid majors.

C-USA Baseball Championship: Pros & Concerns

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Can anyone help me remember my pick for C-USA Pitcher of the Year? Thanks in advance.

In many ways this week was a microcosm of the Owls' 2010 season. The offense was otherwordly in two games (Houston, Marshall) and alternated between good and bad in two others (East Carolina, Southern Miss). The Owls' two-out hitting in the fifth inning on Saturday night was precisely what you wanted to see, but there were times when first-pitch swinging left you scratching your head. The OG has spoken repeatedly about batters having a plan before stepping to the plate, and on Saturday - like Wednesday - some Owls did, some didn't.

It's too easy to chastise the Owls for their failure to touch Southern Miss Sr. RHP Scott Copeland, for as The OG put it, plenty of teams have had struggles against Copeland.

"Two-days rest - guys used to do that all the time," The OG said of Copeland, who threw 106 pitches and eight shutout innings at Memphis on Wednesday before throwing 64 more in blanking the Owls in his first relief 2010 appearance. "I'd be surprised if he hadn't been good.

"He's 11-0 - a lot of folks have trouble with him. To beat him you really need about five lefthanded hitters to tell you the truth. He'll still pitch well, but you've got a much better shot if you've got a lefthanded-dominant (lineup) because his ball sinks into the righthanded hitters hard."

The fact is the Owls executed well against a quality righthander - Todd McInnis. Ten hits in 4-plus innings against a staff ace is sufficient, and if not for a couple of unfortunate bounces (the Mozingo automatic double and the Comerota 5-4-3 inning-ending double play) the Owls would have scored a lot more than four runs against McInnis. It's a capricious game at times.

So, let's not micromanage. As the Owls prepare to hit the road for the NCAA Tournament, let's reexamine what went right and what went wrong these past four days at Cougar Field:

PROS

The batting order. Granted, the Owls won't witness pitching as poor as they faced against East Carolina, UH and Marshall, but this lineup has proven that it can have success against quality pitchers. Even with a couple of wayward at-bats against the Golden Eagles, this lineup should feel confident that it can rake against most any staff come the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps the Owls can be exploited by another righthander with sinking stuff, but it's highly doubtful that another pitcher will no-hit them for four-plus innings like Copeland did Saturday.

The bullpen. Abel Gonzales isn't the first pitcher Southern Miss shortstop B.A. Vollmuth has taken yard, so that's nothing to really sweat. And while it would have been nice had J.T. Chargois not caught so much of the plate on that 0-2 pitch to Taylor Walker, all told the Owls' pen excelled this week: 12 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 10 K. Tip 'o' the cap to all six pitchers.

Jared Rogers. The OG said he continues to get better and better, and after Rogers twirled a five-hit shutout with a career-high eight strikeouts at Marshall, it's easy to take The OG at his word. If So. LHP Taylor Wall pitches like an ace next weekend, the Owls can comfortably state that they have three quality starters. If they can avoid the loser's bracket, they're good.

CONCERNS

Jeremy Rathjen's mojo. Since boosting his average to a season-high .360 at UCF on April 17, Rathjen has lost 46 points on said average. He knocked in 42 runs in his first 31 games but has just 23 RBIs in the 22 games since. He has eight multi-RBI games during his slump, but he also has six hitless games. With Jr. SS Rick Hague on fire ahead of him and Anthony Rendon and Diego Seastrunk excelling in the two spots immediately behind, Rathjen is starting to draw the attention of opposing staffs. It was clear that Southern Miss pitched around Hague with two outs in the second in order to get to Rathjen, even to load the bases. The OG discussed dropping Rathjen down in the order recently but decided against it. He might need to reconsider that decision, at least until Rathjen gets his dangerous swing back.

The defense. Just when you want to believe that it's airtight, a booted double-play grounder here and a misplayed line drive there leave you thinking otherwise. The Owls are hitting the road for a regional due in large part to several dropped fly balls, and given the critical timing of the Owls' errors, it's difficult to feel overly comfortable with their defensive play in tight spots.

Consistency. The Owls just haven't shown it, even riding that proverbial roller coaster during games. That they can be so hot and cold at the plate and on the mound makes you wonder if they are even capable of the type of run necessary to reach Omaha without playing at home.

On Monday we'll all find out where the Owls will play next weekend. Feel free to post your predictions in this space, for several locales (Austin, Fort Worth, Norman) seem quite viable.

Can They, Will They Against Todd McInnis?

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Let's get one thing crystal clear: Patrick Somers, William Kankel and Mike Mason aren't in the same league as Southern Miss RHP Todd McInnis, the 2009 C-USA Pitcher of the Year. While the Owls' offensive exploits at Cougar Field during the C-USA Baseball Championship have been something to behold, battering inferior pitchers is something a lineup this talented should do. To the tune of .459/.537/.937 with 13 homers? No, but batter nonetheless? Yes.

What have we learned while watching the Owls power Cougar Field with their aluminum bats? Well for one thing, opponents might want to ignore the Owls' modest 10-9 record against southpaws. This lineup has settled in with Jr. RF Chad Mozingo atop the order, Sr. C/DH Diego Seastrunk supplying protection for cleanup hitter/So. 3B Anthony Rendon, and the bottom of the order providing the potential for surprising pop. Jr. SS Rick Hague is entrenched in the No. 2 hole, and while there has been some flux immediately ahead of Rendon and in the two spots immediately following GDG, the Owls know exactly what they are offensively. That level of comfort has been revealed down the stretch, and in particular this rousing week.

No. 2: Sr. CF Steven Sultzbaugh is not to be trifled with during the C-USA Baseball Championship. Last year he hit .438/.471/.500 over three games in Hattiesburg. Through three games this week he is batting .800/.769/2.000 with three homers and 12 RBIs. No, that slugging percentage is not a typo. For whatever reason Sultzbaugh caught fire down the stretch last season, and if this week plus his last three starts of the regular season (5-for-12 with two runs and six RBIs) are to be taken as gospel, Sultzbaugh is warming with the weather again. Leave him in the 9-hole and let him terrorize pitchers a few weeks longer.

All that is dandy, but the truth is East Carolina started Somers and saved its frontline pitchers for pod play. UH started its ace, Michael Goodnight, against Marshall and made the inconceivable mistake of starting Kankel in a must-win contest. Mason was the beneficiary of some dubious Rice baserunning 20 days ago, and given a second crack at the Marshall lefty, the Owls proved that they should have swept that series at Appalachian Power Park. None of those guys can hold a candle to McInnis, and McInnis (6-5, 2.91 ERA, .215 BAA, 1.15 WHIP) was first and foremost on The OG's mind following the corralling of the Thundering Herd.

"We're going to be really tested tomorrow night ... McInnis will probably be pitching," The OG said. "He's really good, so we'll find out just how zoned in we really are."

What's that you say? Rice roughed up McInnis to the tune of five runs (four earned) on four hits and three walks in two innings during a 10-2 victory two weeks ago? Yes, they did. But McInnis left that start with a minor arm injury, and we are left to presume that he is healthy following last weekend's 5-3 win over Memphis (6.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K). The Golden Eagles are on the NCAA Tournament bubble and likely need a C-USA tournament title and corresponding automatic bid to gain entry into an NCAA regional. It should come as no surprise that Southern Miss coach Scott Berry entrusts McInnis with his season on the line.

That's not to suggest that the Owls should cower in fear from this challenge. If we've learned anything over the past few days it's that this stacked lineup is capable of the near-impossible.

"We're not going to try to change anything," Mozingo (.325/.397/.442) said. "We'll just look at him as a pitcher who's throwing a fastball at us and just try to hit whatever he throws at us and keep the same mentality. And just keep the same swagger we've been coming with."

Like It's 1997-98

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Perhaps it's best to let the Owls discuss their 24-3, six-homer destruction of rival Houston:




East Carolina started LHP Patrick Somers on Wednesday and the Owls won 11-3. UH started LHP William Kankel and the Owls won 24-3. Marshall is scheduled to start LHP Mike Mason on Friday. The Owls are just 9-9 against lefthanded starters, but with seven righthanders in their batting order (Hague, Rathjen, Rendon, Ratterree, Comerota, Fuda, Sultzbaugh), opponents might be pushing their luck relying on the Owls' shaky record against southpaws.

Owls Need That Taylor Wall

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A breakdown of the performance by Owls So. LHP Taylor Wall in a second. But first: How about the relief effort delivered by Fr. LHP Holt McNair and So. RHP Matthew Reckling? As badly as the Owls need Wall to return to pre-final-exams form, they need their bullpen to reveal quality depth. McNair (two scoreless innings) had been erratic of late, sandwiching two poor outings against TSU (1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 0 K) and Southern Miss (0.2 IP, 2 H, 2 ER) around a three-inning stint at Oklahoma State where he surrendered no runs on two hits and two walks. Reckling hadn't pitched since May 4 against Texas State yet threw strikes, fielded his position beautifully, and worked a scoreless ninth including a game-ending strikeout.

As for Wall, it wasn't pretty but it was effective. He surrendered two solo home runs, worked his way in and out of trouble in the second, third and fifth, and retired the Pirates in order only once. But when he needed big strikeouts he got them, and despite The OG's desire for Wall to work the inside of the plate, Wall did just enough to prove he is a viable postseason pitcher.

"It was a step forward, so next week or whenever we'll build on that," Wall (6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) said. "I'm just working on staying on my back leg, not opening up too fast and leaving the ball up. Just really staying on my back leg and driving the ball down in the zone."

The mechanical issues are nothing new for Wall. Earlier in the season he scuffled with runners on base due to similar problems, and it took tedious work on his part and that of the coaching staff to get those kinks ironed out. Wall began to lose his mechanics in a start at Marshall on May 7, allowing season highs in hits (11) and walks (four) while fighting his way to a victory. His struggles were more pronounced against Southern Miss, UH and UAB, so Wall desperately needed to show the coaching staff something against East Carolina Wednesday.

Wall has work remaining. Additional reps in the bullpen should help him keep his front shoulder closed and stay on his back leg, which in turn should allow Wall superior command. If Wall can regain control of the inside of the plate, his slider and change are more effective.

Wall took a step in the right direction against the Pirates. He'll could be better next weekend.

"We got to throw off of his fastball today," Owls Sr. C Diego Seastrunk said. "It's not his best velocity, but he had a good fastball today. We were able to work off of that, and his slider was biting hard. I saw some good stuff out of him, and we're going to need him the rest of the way."

Tournament Rotation & Regional Hosting Hopes

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Let's cut to the chase and reveal the Owls' rotation for the C-USA Baseball Championship:

So. LHP Taylor Wall (4-5, 4.66 ERA, .238 BAA, 1.29 WHIP) against No 6 East Carolina.

Sr. RHP Mike Ojala (4-2, 3.70 ERA, .196 BAA, 1.14 WHIP) against No. 5 UH.

Sr. RHP Jared Rogers (7-1, 4.50 ERA, .284 BAA, 1.33 WHIP) against No. 4 Marshall.

Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou (3-3, 4.10 ERA, .276 BAA, 1.42 WHIP) in the C-USA title game.

The OG on the decision behind the sequence of his Conference USA Baseball Championship rotation: "Obviously you want your most potent pitcher at this time (Ojala) to pitch against Houston. And of course Rogers is pitching well, and of course the most important games are the ones in your bracket (UH, Marshall). We're going to try to win the first one because we not only have a good pitcher (Wall) going, but one that needs to right his ship if we're going to go on. Boogie is not ready to pitch early, so Wall is the obvious choice to me to pitch that game."

With the Owls posting a 9-4 record since their return from their final exams hiatus and 40 victories prior to the NCAA Tournament no longer a reality, most everyone has given up on the notion of Rice hosting the Houston Regional and has accepted the Owls' fate as a traveling No. 2 seed. That list does not include The OG, who remains optimistic that a C-USA Baseball Championship added to a regular-season title might keep the Owls in the hosting discussion.

"It's a possibility for the simple reason of the double championship, and the fact that there are so many teams from two leagues in the top 20," The OG said, referring to the ACC and SEC. "Now they (the NCAA baseball selection committee) can't give them all a regional. It's pretty far fetched (for the Owls to host), but you don't want to give up any chance that you have."

According to the latest RPI released by the NCAA, the ACC (Virginia, Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina) and SEC (Florida, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama) each have six teams in the top 20. The Owls (RPI: 28) would have a significant amount of leapfrogging to do in order to host a regional at The Reck, but a sweep of the C-USA Baseball Championship would represent one leap in the right direction.

Your C-USA Awards Ballot

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Full disclosure: Below I offer my selections for Freshman of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, Pitcher of the Year, Player of the Year and Coach of the Year in C-USA, as well as my rationale behind my picks. I'd love to read the choices of those familiar with league personnel.

FRESHMAN: Michael Ratterree, 2B, Rice.

This was far more difficult than I had anticipated. UCF 3B Chris Taladay (.352/.403/.557) made half as many errors as Ratterree, enjoyed a sizable edge in OPS (.960 to .917), and held a distinct advantage in total bases (117 to 95) despite participating in four fewer games. But Ratterree deserves extra credit for starting all 55 games at second base, a new position for the prep shortstop, on a team that won the regular-season championship. Ratterree also had the edge in runs produced (runs scored + RBI - home runs) by three (91 to 88). Ultimately, his contributions meant slightly more to the Owls than what Taladay provided the Knights, who leaned heavily on seniors stars Chris Duffy and Shane Brown yet finished in eighth place.

NEWCOMER: Zach Woods, Jr., RHP, East Carolina.

This was a pretty weak field, with Woods' raw numbers besting those of Southern Miss 1B Mark Ellis and UCF 1B Jonathan Griffin. Woods was the Friday night starter for the Pirates and finished 8-4 with a 4.73 ERA, .263 BAA and 1.34 WHIP - respectable numbers for someone who made more than half his starts in that bandbox called Clark-LeClair Stadium. Realizing that fly balls were hazardous, Woods struck out 95 in 83.2 innings. Ellis and Griffin had similar stats, with neither being superior enough to offset what Woods did for the Pirates.

PITCHER: Scott Copeland, Sr., RHP Southern Miss.

Had Owls So. LHP Taylor Wall not struggled coming out of the final exams break, he would have been deserving of a write-in nod. But how could anyone deny Copeland, who took full advantage of a down season for league pitchers by going 9-0 with a 3.91 ERA, .272 BAA, 1.30 WHIP and two complete games? His emergence allowed the Eagles to move Preseason Pitcher of the Year Todd McInnis to Saturdays without skipping a beat. Memphis RHP Ryan Fraser won three Pitcher of the Week awards, but his numbers (7-3, 5.40 ERA, .311 BAA, 1.72 WHIP) were unimpressive. Tulane RHP Nick Pepitone posted gaudy stats (6-0, 2.28 ERA, .190 BAA, 1.15 WHIP, 8 saves) for a last-place team, so how influential was he really?

PLAYER: Anthony Rendon, So., 3B, Rice.

I almost feel like a hypocrite for voting for someone beside Tulane RS So. 3B Rob Segedin considering the fuss I made a few years back when Tulane 1B Mark Hamilton got the vote over the more deserving Owls SS Brian Friday. My argument then was that league stats should carry more weight than overall numbers because direct comparisons are more valid. Well, Segedin hit .457/.549/.793 in 24 C-USA games, significantly better than Rendon (.402/.496/.773) across the board. But like Pepitone, how valuable is a player on a last-place team? The Green Wave finishing at the bottom of the league standings doesn't totally negate what Segedin produced because he was splendid. However, Rendon played a central role in the Owls' run to the league championship, and on some level he should be rewarded for that.

Additionally, Rendon finished first in runs and homers, second in RBIs and walks, third in slugging and total bases, fourth in on-base percentage and eighth in batting when the overall numbers were tallied. Plus he had the edge in runs produced over every other candidate, so it's not like the guy was a statistical slouch. Also, he was by far the best defensive player of the five candidates on the ballot, a fact that counts for something in my book. I had Duffy second because those stats (.447/.539/.850 with 21 homers, 81 RBIs and 175 total bases) - even if bloated during midweek contests - were ridiculous, and Southern Miss So. SS B.A. Vollmuth, the second-most talented player in C-USA, third. Last place is what it is, Tulane fan.

COACH: Scott Berry, Southern Miss.

The Golden Eagles lost 12 lettermen, four starters and a longtime head coach from a College World Series qualifier. They stumbled to start the C-USA season and were D.O.A. following a series loss to Marshall. That Berry, in his first year at the helm, got the ship righted and led Southern Miss to a dozen consecutive wins, including handing the Owls their first conference loss at The Reck, and second place in the league was impressive and deserving of kudos.

Now That The Field Is Set

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[Begin rant] 

Terrible form on the part of the league to promote that the No. 1 seed would play the night games at the C-USA Baseball Championship only to reverse course and reveal after the field was set that the host institution, in this case UH, has the option of selecting its game times. It would have taken little more than an asterisk to inform potential ticket buyers of this hidden league clause/agreement, and that would have sufficiently alerted all that the possibility of schedule shenanigans existed. But even beyond that fact, this situation is all sorts of wrong.

Why should UH be rewarded with playing night games at Cougar Field simply because it is the host institution? UH is not hosting on merit, but rather because the league attempts to rotate the event between suitable facilities (with the tournament in Pearl, Miss., next season, will Southern Miss have the same option as UH?). Now, if the tournament were hosted by the No. 1 seed then fine, let that team dictate what time it elects to play. But as the No. 5 seed, the Coogs should have zero sway over when it takes the field. If this were an indoor sport (volleyball, basketball, etc.) then it wouldn't matter, but in the blistering late-May Houston heat, the regular-season champion should gain some advantage from having proven itself the superior team over a 24-game league schedule. That benefit should not automatically fall in the lap of the host institution, particularly one that needed two wins over the last weekend of the season just to qualify for the event and to avoid having the event pulled from its facility.

[End rant]

If the Owls are Lucy, does that make the rest of us Charlie Brown? Jared Rogers, Mike Ojala and Boogie Anagnostou pitch their backsides off, we settle down and bask in the warmth of those stellar performances, and then the bullpen rolls in, surrenders three home runs in three innings and leaves us feeling hoodwinked. The offense pounds Southern Miss' pitching staff into submission, but in strolls UAB and suddenly the Owls' lineup is flawed. This consistent inconsistency is maddening, and worst yet it cost the Owls a legit shot at hosting a regional. It doesn't take long to count the games the Owls gave away with porous defense or abysmal relief, a handful of contests that led to the Owls recording their first 20-loss season since '01.

If you are pulling your hair out trying to decipher this club, just imagine what The OG is feeling right about now. Just when it appears that Jr. LHP Abel Gonzales is back in form, he wobbles through a pair of outings against the Blazers. Just as The OG attempts to ease So. LHP Taylor Wall back into the mix, his defense fails him and UAB Sr. 1B Luke Stewart burns him. Hitting comes and goes, but it feels almost eerie to watch So. 3B Anthony Rendon have such a quiet weekend, or to witness Jr. RF Chad Mozingo scuffle atop the order. You see the talent and want so desperately to feel safe imagining Zestos in your hands, but the Owls continue to pull that ball away at precisely the right - or wrong - moment. The fall kinda hurts.

"Rendon said it earlier - it's been a roller-coaster ride," Owls Sr. C Diego Seastrunk said of this bizarre 2010 campaign. "I have a lot of confidence in this team because the ability is all over the place. We've got to play each game trying to win each inning. We need to truncate it and make it one inning pitch by pitch. I know it sounds cliché but we have to start winning each inning, or we're not going to be doing anything later on in the postseason."

With Rice playing No. 6 seed East Carolina, a team from the opposite pool, on Wednesday, The OG acknowledged that he might flip his weekend rotation. The Owls need only to win their two games against Houston on Thursday and Marshall on Friday to guarantee a spot in the tournament final, so chances are slim that The OG will use a frontline starter against the Pirates. Of course, the events of the past few weeks begs the following question: Who outside of Ojala is a frontline starter? And, if your least-reliable starter is the safest option against East Carolina, who fits that bill? Wall, the staff ace for the bulk of this season? Rogers, who has struggled in two appearances against East Carolina? Or Anagnostou, who has pitched exceptionally in his last two outings? Please, share your answers with the class.

Since they started making appearances at the College World Series in '97, the Owls have won at least 43 games every season. With the turbulence of this season, these Owls (35-20) will be hard-pressed to win eight more games. Of course, they could catch fire offensively and roll all the way to Rosenblatt Stadium. The thing is that after 55 games, we have no idea which team will show up. What we do know is that the Owls won't return to The Reck anytime soon, so if they plan on making a trip to Omaha, they'd better get those Willie Nelson t-shirts.

"We've played so much on the road it shouldn't be too big a problem," The OG said with a laugh. "More so this year than any year I've seen it's a matter of if you don't trust yourself totally ... then you deserve to fail. You've programmed failure. You may fail occasionally anyway, but your percentage of failures are going to go off the scale if you don't trust yourself."

Pitching For The Weekend

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Did anyone happen to notice that when Fr. RHP J.T. Chargois returned to the Cougar Field mound for his second inning of work on Tuesday, he appeared a tad lighter in his road grays? That's because an unnamed member of the coaching staff chewed off his backside after Chargois pitched delicately upon entering the game in relief of So. LHP Taylor Wall. Chargois surrendered an RBI single to M.P. Cokinos before inducing a ground ball from Caleb Ramsey. When he returned to the dugout, he was quickly informed that his effort was unsatisfactory.

The reaming worked. Chargois was magnificent the rest of the way as he did what he was so forcefully told, trusted his arsenal of pitches, and blanked UH through the eighth inning. Whether Chargois can build on his fantastic outing remains to be seen, but with the Owls in such desperate need for consistent quality pitching, fingers are crossed that what Chargois and Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey revealed stuff-wise is reason to believe that both are in the process of turning the corner. Duffey displayed a magnificent breaking ball, and with Chargois issuing zero free passes in 6 1/3 innings of work, the Owls just might have something to work with.

With the hitting and defense in stride, the Owls pitching remains the biggest question mark heading into the final C-USA series of the regular season, a three-game set with UAB. Sr. RHP Jared Rogers (6-1, 5.04 ERA) will start the opener followed by Sr. RHP Mike Ojala (3-2, 4.01 ERA) on Friday, but a starter for the finale has not be announced. Wall, the staff ace, would seem the likely bet if he weren't in a funk. In his three starts since the Owls returned from their final exams hiatus, Wall is 1-1 with an 11.81 ERA and 2.81 WHIP. He has struck out a total of four batters in 10 2/3 innings after averaging 6.6 strikeouts/9IP in his previous five starts. Wall has lost his mechanics and is showing his pitches with both his arm action and an exposed grip. He experienced similar issues earlier this season but corrected them.

If Wall required additional tinkering this weekend, Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou could start on Saturday. Anagnostou allowed two runs on six hits and three walks over 5 2/3 innings of relief against Southern Miss last Sunday, and with the Owls sure to need four starters if a run to the C-USA tournament title game is in the offing, Anagnostou is a good bet to be that starter.

Unless of course Chargois proves he is ready to tackle the challenge of excelling as a starter.

Explosive!

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Perhaps it wasn't an obvious question, but it was a valid query given the circumstances.

Southern Miss So. SS B.A. Vollmuth went bananas this weekend at The Reck, hitting the ball with such ferocity (.615/.688/1.615 with 4 home runs and 11 RBIs) and fielding with such effortless grace (well, before that huge throwing error in the fourth inning on Sunday) that one had to wonder whether Owls So. 3B Anthony Rendon had taken notice. Before Rendon went 4-for-4 with two homers and three RBIs in his final four at-bats, Vollmuth had performed like the unquestioned MVP of the series. Obviously, Rendon wasn't about to be shown up.

"That's the competitiveness in me," Rendon said. "I always want to be the best on the field and try to do the best that I can. It was pretty nuts; everything you threw the guy he was hitting."

For the first time since Tulane RS So. 3B Rob Segedin went 7-for-12 with three runs, four RBIs and two homers against the Owls in mid-April, a Conference USA Player of the Year candidate left an impression as indelible as Rendon for a weekend. Vollmuth was exceptional, but like Segedin, came out on the wrong end of the most significant tally - a series victory.

While Rendon (.383/.529/.800 with 21 homers and 66 RBIs) and Segedin (.436/.519/.810 with 14 homers and 53 RBIs) continue to run 1-2 on my ballot, Vollmuth (.380/.487/.677 with 12 homers and 57 RBIs) vaulted past UCF Sr. OF Chris Duffy and East Carolina Sr. 1B/DH Kyle Roller with his all-around excellence this weekend. One week remains in the regular season and, with the Owls having already clinched the top seed in the C-USA tournament, Rendon appears to have the edge over Segedin, whose Green Wave could fail to qualify for the event. Should Tulane not make it Rendon, the far superior defensive player, should win his second consecutive C-USA POY honor. Rendon certainly cast an imposing figure this weekend.

With his second home run on Sunday, Rendon surpassed the 20 homers he launched while earning national freshman of the year honors. In fact, Rendon is trending toward besting the numbers he posted last season (.388/.461/.702 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs in 61 games), totals that exceeded all expectations he had of himself. So Rendon, are you surprised again?

"Especially since I have like 50 walks (a league-leading 55 to be precise), that's pretty crazy. I didn't think that I could do this much," Rendon said of his stats. "I wanted to come out here and try not to bat like .280. I wanted to have a good average because I know pitchers are going to pitch me differently and I knew I was going to start swinging more because I would start to get anxious. I guess it kind of clicked in my head that I can't try to do too much."

Home, Sweet Home

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No one would cop to it, so there was little need to belabor the discussion. But after flying to Charleston, W. Va., last Thursday, playing three games there over the weekend before flying back to Houston late Sunday afternoon, the Owls bused from campus to IAH first thing Tuesday morning, from where they flew to Oklahoma City, bused to Stillwater, and faced Oklahoma State Tuesday evening. They played exactly as they looked - flat - in falling 12-5.

At this late stage in the season, the Owls have contested half of their 48 games on the road. That is a remarkable statistic for an established national power, and a quick perusal of the RPI top 25 reveals that only one other team has played as many road games to this point: UConn. Incidentally, the Huskies have played fewer than half of the Owls' 18 games against top 50 teams, so it's safe to assume that their road slate hasn't been nearly as challenging.

[Ed. note: By comparison, let's take a gander at the current road records of the Owls' regional rivals rated highly in RPI - Texas (10-3), Arkansas (11-6), LSU (4-8) and TCU (16-6).]

What's done is done. The Owls have one final chance to improve their 11-13 road record next week against UH at Cougar Field, but a sub-.500 finish away from The Reck will negatively impact their opportunity to host an NCAA Tournament regional. So be it. If the Owls can take solace in one thing as they prepare for the increasing likelihood of having to take to the road for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, it's that they are battle tested away from home. Wherever the committee ships them - Austin, Fort Worth, Fayetteville, Baton Rouge - they can rest easy knowing they've been there and done that. Willie Nelson is their homeboy.

What the Owls can control is what happens between May 14-29. During that two-week span they will play as many as 11 games all within city limits. Six of those contests will take place at The Reck against league rivals Southern Miss and UAB, and what they hope are five more games will be held at Cougar Field a few miles away. Win all 11, or at the very least 10, and the Owls can keep their fingers crossed when the regional hosts are announced. Even if they come up empty that day, they will ride a 27-6 or 26-7 run into the postseason, a record so gaudy that even a team with pressing pitching depth concerns should feel justly emboldened.

The Owls aren't flawless, but 40 victories before the NCAA Tournament opens would do a lot to assuage fears that this team has been cursed since that fateful weekend in Palo Alto. Perhaps it will require a Herculean effort for the Owls to battle their way to Rosenblatt Stadium, but they could very easily rediscover their strength by sleeping in their own beds.

Everybody Clicks, Gonzo's Back & RPI Watch

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It was like I hadn't been paying rapt attention these past few months.

By merely suggesting that one Owl would explode offensively this past weekend at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, I haphazardly ignored the reason behind the Owls' recent uptick in offensive proficiency. The Owls have thrived because of a collective effort at the plate, their barrage of runs coming courtesy of Jr. RF Chad Mozingo setting up permanent residence atop the order, So. CF/DH Jeremy Rathjen finding a home in the 3-hole, Sr. C/DH Diego Seastrunk providing protection for cleanup hitter Anthony Rendon, and Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota channeling his inner Lou Gehrig. Several Owls have been responsible for this avalanche, so it was no surprise when everyone chipped in during the series win at Marshall.

Rendon paced the club with seven RBIs and three home runs, but those were his lone base knocks of the series as he hit .231/.267/.923. His slugging percentage was bested by both Sr. CF Steven Sultzbaugh and GDG, both of whom slugged 1.000. Sultzbaugh homered twice while GDG matched Rendon with a dozen total bases via a team-leading three doubles and his fifth home run. The leader in walks? Mozingo with five, but he didn't lead the way in on-base percentage. That distinction was shared by RS So. LF Michael Fuda and GDG, who reached base at a .600 clip. Fuda paced the Owls in hitting (.538) and runs scored (six) despite batting near the bottom of the order. The Owls aren't averaging 10.8 runs/game since April 1 and haven't reached double digits in runs 11 times over that 21-game span because one player is shouldering the load. The entire lineup is responsible for this breathtaking surge.

Despite the gaudy numbers posted by the offense, the most positive development of the trip to West Virginia was Jr. LHP Abel Gonzales emerging from his five-appearance slump. Before he took the mound at Jay Bergman Field in Orlando on April 17, Gonzo had strung together six consecutive outings where he did not allow an earned run, over which time he lowered his ERA to 1.78. In the five appearances that started with his outing against UCF, Gonzo surrendered seven runs on 16 hits and one walk over 7 2/3 innings while striking out five. His WHIP during that span was 2.22; his ERA of 8.22 led to his season ERA ballooning to 3.08.

Gonzo was shaky in his first appearance of the weekend, allowing two hits and uncorking a wild pitch while retiring just one batter. In the series finale he was dominant, entering with one out in the seventh and finishing off the Owls' 14-4 win by fanning five and allowing one single. The OG had challenged Gonzo to believe in his stuff, and Gonzo heeded the advice. The results spoke loudly, and should help reverse a negative trend for the inconsistent bullpen.

The Owls' 4-1 week had more of an impact on their positioning in the polls, where they were elevated a couple spots across the board, than in the all-important RPI, where they remain in the 26/27 range. According to the Nitty Gritty Report, the Owls would be well served to win their remaining two road contests as well as sweep aside UAB at The Reck in a couple of weeks. The upcoming showdown with red-hot Southern Miss could settle the top overall seed for the Conference USA tournament, and it will represent the Owls' final shot to at least slightly boost their RPI. But in truth, the Owls need a ton of external aid to present an RPI robust enough to merit hosting an NCAA Tournament regional at The Reck. At this point, all they can do is follow the mantra of maniacal Oakland Raiders owner/patriarch Al Davis: Just Win, Baby!

Pick To Click At Appalachian Power Park

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If this were the majors I'd be better equipped to provide home-road splits from the Thundering Herd. Instead, I'm forced to rely on anecdotal evidence of the supposed power surge that comes when the wind is blowing out in the afternoon at aptly-named Appalachian Power Park.

The Owls have visited Charleston twice since they joined Conference USA in 2006. The results from those two series are strikingly different, with the first series including three day games and the second two night games before the finale was contested during the afternoon:

2006: 17.3 runs/game, .433 batting average, 21 walks, 25 extra-base hits.

2008: 8.7 runs/game, .267 batting average, 16 walks, 12 extra-base hits.

According to some, the direction of the wind is more of a factor than the time of the first pitch when gauging the frequency of balls flying out of this park. There is a warehouse looming in right field that, from a story shared by a Marshall staffer, is easily reachable when conditions are perfect. Judging the intermittently limp flags on the left-center field scoreboard and those inside the left-field foul pole, conditions aren't ripe for an offensive eruption today. We'll see.

Past Owls have enjoyed legendary weekends here. 'Hank' Aaron Luna went 7-for-15 with two homers, 12 RBIs and 10 runs from May 18-20, 2006 while Brian Friday hit four homers and drove in 12 that series. Jared Gayhart went 4-for-5 with three doubles and a homer while driving in six in the Owls' 13-9 win on March 22, 2008. Chances are good that at least one member of the Rice batting order might go bananas this weekend, especially with three day games, so the question is who? Jr. SS Rick Hague has homered in consecutive games while driving in six against Texas State and Texas Southern. Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree appears to be driving the ball again (3-for-6 with three walks, two homers and six RBIs this week), and since he's strong like bull, he's worth a wager. Word is So. 3B Anthony Rendon has a little pop.

Of course, the most vital stat to maintain is this one: Rice is 6-0 at Appalachian Power Park.

Lamentable Schedule?

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As The OG confidently yet cautiously opined on the Owls' rousing start to the final month of the regular season, he struck a chord on a topic that has been central to this season: the Owls' 2010 schedule. As Rice (27-16, 11-4 C-USA) continues its breathless and hopeful RPI ascent (23 following the victory over Texas State on Tuesday), the Owls' rugged non-conference schedule grows in significance. Depending on where you stand, either it was too ambitious or just tough enough for a program that harbored preseason national title hopes.

Fittingly, The OG appears to be straddling the fence. Should the Owls continue to build off their staggering start against strong competition, that difficult schedule will get some credit for hardening the Owls. Should Rice fall just short of its stated goal of hosting the Houston Regional at The Reck because of a few non-conference losses, some will blame the schedule which, in conjunction with the annually stifling academic rigors, made for tough sledding early.

"Academics combined with our schedule this year has been a big load," The OG said. "We shouldn't have scheduled like we did. It's too tough here to do that. And you know, if it works out for us we'll say it was a great rite of passage, but it is a little too rough. We don't plan to schedule that rough anymore."

Finding a secure place to stand on this issue is tricky. The Owls' preseason non-conference schedule was ranked 10th nationally, audacious for sure but not overwhelming for a team with such a strong veteran clubhouse. In hindsight, one could argue that a team with suspect and inexperienced pitching bit off more than it could chew by scheduling four non-conference series against programs with ISRs currently ranked in the top 30 (I'm counting Texas in this instance because the Owls played the Longhorns thrice this season - at The Reck, at The Disch and Minute Maid Park) and home-&-home sets against four quality regional opponents:

@Stanford (ISR: 24)
Texas (ISR: 3)
California (ISR: 12)
@San Diego (ISR: 29)

Lamar (ISR: 139)
Houston (ISR: 80)
Texas State (ISR: 38)
Sam Houston State (ISR: 172)

The Owls finished a combined 4-9 in those four non-conference series and are 5-1 in the home-&-home series with one game at UH remaining. The fact that the Owls finished 1-6 on the road in those non-conference series is somewhat telling, but their annual swoon in California is what garnered attention and sparked debate. Only time will tell whether the Owls can recover from their slow start, but even the toughest of schedules shouldn't stall a program this powerful, even a schedule combined with a ridiculously challenging academic calendar. For a staff that has nurtured this program into an annual title threat, remorse isn't required.

Staying Sharp

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The best thing, according to The OG, to come out of the Owls' four intrasquads this past weekend? No one suffered an injury, and with his team on the brink of playing its way into a hosting position for an NCAA regional, optimal health is priority No. 1 as the Owls enter the stretch run. Needing to win as many of their 17 remaining games prior to the NCAA Tournament as possible, the Owls' cause will be greatly aided if all hands remain on deck.

As was to be expected 42 games into the season, nothing earth-shattering unfolded over the weekend. The OG added Jr. LHP Matt Evers to the active, 27-man roster with the hope that the veteran southpaw might provide some punch to the bullpen if/when his name is called. With finals nearly complete (more on that subject to come on the mothersite), several players might be relieved enough of their academic burdens to contribute in means beyond what they have thus far this season. Given Evers' talent, he is certainly worth the risk of a roster spot.

Coming off a sound defensive performance in the series finale against East Carolina last Sunday (including two putouts and four assists), Jr. SS Rick Hague 'looked good' at his natural position. Sr. CF Steven Sultzbaugh swung the bat well, and considering how strongly he came on down the stretch last season (Sulztbaugh hit .425/.471/.663 with four homers and 10 RBIs over 23 games following the finals break in 2009), perhaps something positive remains ahead for Sultzbaugh. Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree has been in a prolonged slump at the plate, but with his first academic year ostensibly complete, he appeared much more relaxed. Fr. IF/RHP J.T. Chargois was closely observed at first base as a viable backup to Sr. Jimmy Comerota and, in the never-ending quest to develop reliable righthanded pitching, Fr. Chase McDowell was advanced. Look for McDowell to pitch at some point this week with five games on the slate.

The Owls (26-16, 11-4 C-USA) begin their stretch run on Tuesday against Texas State at The Reck. Their immediate goals remain three-pronged: win the C-USA regular-season title, sweep the field at the C-USA tournament at Cougar Field, and secure a bid as a host for an NCAA regional. With an RPI of 25, the Owls have work to do, but the task isn't improbable.

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