April 2, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The whispers are complimentary, but in some ways they crystallize how unfamiliar observers were to the potential of Rice junior Abel Gonzales.
For three seasons injuries sapped Gonzales of his ability to contribute in a manner in which he felt possible, but so few were completely aware of his travails that now, as he continues to thrive in whatever role he is called to fill, Rice fans are taken aback by his multifaceted productivity.
Gonzales isn't startled by his success. On Friday night he entered in the fourth inning and delivered a sparking relief effort to propel Rice to an 11-2 win over Houston at Reckling Park that clinched this Conference USA series and the Silver Glove Trophy for a 10th consecutive season.
"The first, what, two or three years were pretty rough. I've lost count," Gonzales said of debilitating nerve damage in his back that was finally rectified by surgery some 17 months ago. "I'm glad that's behind me, and I'm doing everything I can to stay healthy because I sure enjoy it.
"I've always had that confidence in myself, but it's hard when you're hurt. But it's behind me, and I'm excited to be here and help the team."
In the series opener Gonzales finished 1-for-1 with three walks, two runs and an RBI while playing flawless defense at first base. After Rice starter Jared Rogers surrendered a game-tying home run to Houston center fielder Joel Ansley, a double to Cougars right fielder Taylor White, and then plunked Houston catcher Chris Wallace two batters later, Gonzales entered and doused the fire by inducing a ground ball off the bat of Houston second baseman Ryan Still. He was just getting started.
Gonzales (3-3) allowed just two singles and two walks while matching his season high of 5 1/3 innings pitched, accomplished during a start at Texas State on March 3. As Rogers scuffled against the Cougars' aggressive offense Gonzales took notes, and after he was summoned from the bullpen, he quickly used the Cougars' aggression against them.
"I knew throwing that sinker down and out would get some ground balls pretty fast," said Gonzales, who lowered his ERA to 2.05. "I got a few quick outs that way. But that's part of my game plan always. Anytime I can go in there and execute, I feel like I can get outs."
Added Rice coach Wayne Graham: "He pitched extremely well. He not only stabilized things, he pretty much dominated. He was actually throwing pretty hard - he hit 90 (miles per hour) and threw lots of 88s. He was throwing a two-seam (fastball) 88 that was a really good pitch."
The Owls (16-12, 3-2 C-USA) immediately responded to Gonzales' insertion, grabbing the lead in the bottom of the fourth when junior right fielder Chad Mozingo stroked a critical two-out RBI single to right. Shortstop Rick Hague singled to open the inning but appeared destined to be stranded in scoring position before Mozingo chased Houston starter William Kankel (1-2) with his line drive past Caleb Ramsey.
Their fuse lit, the Owls continued to slug away at the Cougars' beleaguered bullpen. Designated hitter Jeremy Rathjen cranked a two-run home run off Mo Wiley to extend the lead to 5-2 in the fifth and, taking a page from Mozingo, freshman second baseman Michael Ratterree plated a pair of teammates with his two-out single in the sixth. Third baseman Anthony Rendon and Rathjen followed with singles that capped the four-run frame and extended the lead to a commanding 9-2.
But it was Mozingo who set the tone atop the order. His placement there was a mild surprise considering the fact Houston (12-13, 2-3) started Kankel, a southpaw. But the lefthanded Mozingo earned a similar assignment in the series finale at Memphis last weekend, and he continued his torrid hitting by finishing 1-for-2 with two walks.
"That was the game where I really started gaining (Graham's) confidence in me. I don't know what was going through his head, but apparently he was right," said Mozingo, batting .480 (12-for-25) over the last six games. "I finally turned it around, so I've got confidence in myself too. It definitely feels good to have Coach believing in me there."
Said Graham: "He's always hit lefties good. It's never been a problem.
"He's had a little better strike zone than he's ever had. Like tonight, he was on (base) three times out of (his final) four (plate appearances). He can bunt; he's a real good athlete. All he's got to do is get in the groove."
Perhaps the Owls as a whole are discovering that elusive groove. With 14 base hits on Friday they extended their string of games with at least 10 hits to six, and with Mozingo, Ratterree and Rathjen swinging hot bats of late, the Owls haven't leaned too heavily on Rendon. Hague, benched on Thursday due in large part to his defensive woes, was quietly reinserted into the lineup and finished 2-for-4 with two runs.
"Definitely in the past week I feel like we've really put it together," Mozingo said. "We're starting to relax and get those clutch hits. It feels good."