March 23, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
AUSTIN - Perhaps Rice will find refuge in Conference USA against opponents that, like the Owls, have struggled to discover consistency.
Perhaps the opening of league play will provide the Owls a shot at revitalization, for the opening 22 games of this season have offered little beyond a confounding string of stellar performances interspersed with mystifying efforts. Against ninth-ranked Texas, Rice produced the latter.
Having rallied on Sunday to partially salvage what was a lost weekend in San Diego, the Owls failed to cash in one golden opportunity Tuesday night before collapsing one inning later in a 5-1 loss at Disch-Falk Field.
Rice (12-10) will open C-USA action on Friday at Memphis seeking to generate some positive momentum. The Owls have been alternately good and bad through five weeks this season, and in the fifth and sixth innings against the Longhorns (16-5), they struggled in all three phases.
"We've definitely got to do something," Owls sophomore catcher Craig Manuel said. "We're supposed to have one of the best offenses in the country and we got two hits off of a weekday starter on Texas.
"The games actually matter now. If we keep playing like we have we might get a bad seed in the conference tournament, and now that they've shrunk the tournament (to six teams) we might miss it completely. We've got a bunch of guys that have been here before. We've got to figure out what this team is missing. We've got to play better baseball. We're a good team, but we're not playing very good."
Trailing 1-0 with two runners on and no outs in the fifth, Owls freshman second baseman Michael Ratterree failed in two attempts to deliver a sacrifice bunt that would have advanced Anthony Rendon and Rick Hague into scoring position. Ratterree struck out against Texas righthander Austin Dicharry, but senior center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh patiently worked a walk to chase Dicharry and set up Manuel with a bases-loaded situation against southpaw Hoby Milner.
Manuel attempted a daring bunt against Milner, who fielded the ball cleanly and flipped it to catcher Cameron Rupp. But with Rendon prone and en route to home plate, Rupp dropped the ball, allowing Rendon to score the game-tying run. As Chad Mozingo came to bat, Hague represented the go-ahead run, but a sharply hit ground ball to Texas second baseman Jordan Etier and a bizarre interference call against Manuel resulted in an rally-killing double play and a 1-1 stalemate.
Rice junior lefthander Abel Gonzales (2-3) was unflappable in the face of that blown opportunity, and after stranding two inherited runners upon entering the game in relief of Anthony Fazio and in the fourth, Gonzales set the Longhorns down in order in the fifth to maintain the deadlock. The sixth was an altogether different frame, for after Hague released an errant throw that enabled Brandon Loy to reach second base to open the inning, the wheels slowly came off the Owls' already wobbly wagon.
Senior righthander Mike Ojala, making just his second appearance on the season following midsummer elbow reconstructive surgery, struggled with his control. He recorded two wild pitches, plunked Kevin Keyes with a fastball, and issued a bases-loaded walk to Kevin Lusson. Texas scratched across four runs without the benefit of a base hit, scoring on a wild pitch, a passed ball, a sac fly and the Lusson walk.
"We started with an error and we walked them," Rice coach Wayne Graham said of the disastrous sixth. "It's the anatomy of disaster."
Texas closer Chance Ruffin (4-1) knew what to do with the lead. The Owls mustered a token rally in the seventh that petered out when Manuel hit into a double play, and they went down quietly in the eighth and ninth. All told the Owls committed two errors, allowed three stolen bases, uncorked three wild pitches and issued six walks against just one strikeout. The hit batsman and passed ball were equally demoralizing.
As Manuel referenced, the offense managed two hits against a quintet of Texas pitchers. Longhorns sophomore lefthander Sam Stafford was making his second appearance on the season, yet he hurled three perfect innings and, combined with Etier's solo home run off Fazio in the third, set an ominous tone for the proceedings. The Owls have suffered through nights like these before, but they've also played exceptionally in flashing their might.
Perhaps they can get untracked against C-USA foes. East Carolina and Southern Miss, purported threats to the Owls' perch, have staggered out of the gate, so opportunity is awaiting the Owls to right their ship, claim a 16th consecutive league title, and put this ugly start behind them.
"There is a very good chance it will happen. There's a chance it won't, but I think we will," Graham said. "We need to get in a groove, that's all.
"The kids are good athletes. Some of them are not looking like good athletes out there, but it seems like they're putting a little too much pressure on themselves. I'm not putting any on them, I'm just telling them what I believe. I do believe in them and I believe they can play, they just need to straighten out."
Added Manuel: "No one expected to be two games above .500 going into conference play. We have a real high expectation for this team and we have a really high level of talent on this team. We've got to realize our potential and reach it. I don't really care about how people around the country see us, but we've got to start winning games."