March 16, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The smile stretched across the grateful face of Rice freshman lefthander Holt McNair spoke volumes to the feelings of elation he was enjoying.
The Austin Westlake product had been inserted into three relatively benign situations before the bullpen phone rang on Tuesday night. His services were requested against No. 5 Texas at Reckling Park, and with sophomore righthander Matthew Reckling struggling to throw strikes, McNair would enter with a game against a rival hanging in the balance.
With one pitch McNair recorded the two biggest outs of the game, inducing a double-play ground ball off the bat of Texas shortstop Brandon Loy to preserve a one-run lead that yielded a 10-6 victory.
No. 19 Rice (11-7) recorded its seventh win in nine meetings against the Longhorns (13-4), who had their six-game win streak snapped. With Texas having already cut the Owls' two-run advantage to 5-4 thanks to a Jordan Etier RBI single, McNair relieved Reckling with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning. One sharp ground ball to second baseman Michael Ratterree later, the Horns' momentum was snuffed.
"It was a big, emotional ride," McNair said of pitching against his hometown Horns. "A lot of my summer ball buddies are on this team, and being able to play against them, it's hard for me to explain.
"There was a little pressure. (Rice) coach (Wayne) Graham said, `All right, we've got a little situation. The bases are loaded; let's see what you can do. Throw balls low in the zone.' That's what I tried, and it worked out well for me."
McNair (1-0) didn't stop there. He faced the minimum in the fifth by picking off Cohl Walla, who drew a one-out walk, and striking out Connor Rowe before surrendering a run-scoring groundout to Etier and giving way to freshman righthander Tyler Duffey, who fanned six over 2 2/3 innings. By that juncture the Owls had expanded their lead to 6-4, and after Duffey struck out two of the three batters he faced in the sixth, the Owls tacked on two runs in the bottom half to build an 8-5 lead.
Rice catcher Craig Manuel, batting fifth and behind cleanup hitter Anthony Rendon for a second consecutive game, was once again an offensive spark. Manuel finished 2-for-3 with three RBIs while protecting Rendon against California on Sunday, and had already produced an RBI single before stepping to the plate with two out and two on in the sixth. He singled to center against Slayton Thomas to drive home Michael Fuda before adding an insurance run with another run-scoring single off Keifer Nuncio in the eighth that scored Rick Hague.
"I'm batting with runners on and in scoring position, so I'm getting some RBI opportunities," Manuel said after going 3-for-5 with three RBIs. "Rendon's on-base percentage is like .800 right now; he's going to get on and I'm going to do my best to drive him in and get some good at-bats.
"As long as I don't ground into double plays I should be fine and stick around in the five-hole. I'm playing well and I like it. I like to put the pressure on with some runners on base."
Rendon, whose on-base percentage stands at an extraordinary .605, delivered two walks and two RBIs, including a solo homer to lead off the fifth inning. But the Owls' offensive attack was impressively balanced, with every starter aside from leadoff hitter Chad Mozingo recording a hit and five different starters driving in at least one run. Designated hitter Diego Seastrunk, in the starting lineup for the first time since Feb. 24, was the lone member of the batting order who did not score a run.
But on Tuesday night, the offensive efficiency took a back seat to the relief work of McNair and Duffey. Texas recorded just one fewer hit than the Owls' 13, but Rice pitchers stranded 13 base runners. Texas hitters struck out to end a frame six times, and combined with the McNair double play that closed the fourth, could not produce in the clutch. Given the performances of the freshmen relievers and the anticipated return of senior righthander Mike Ojala this weekend in San Diego, the Owls just might be rounding into the title-contending form many predicted of them when the season opened one long month ago.
"If we can find enough pitching we're going to be a pretty good ballclub," Graham said. "If Ojala makes this miraculous recovery from Tommy John (surgery), which he might, it could make a huge difference."