April 16, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
ORLANDO, FLA. - Perhaps the outcome on Friday night would have been different were this last season and Rice lefthander Taylor Wall still a freshman. Young pitchers can be flustered by command problems, and Wall was locked in a protracted battle with himself on the mound at Jay Bergman Field, a struggle that would end with one of two conclusions.
Wall would either continue to scuffle with his command, surrender enough runs to allow UCF back into contention, and watch from the dugout as his bullpen attempted to finish what he started, or he could seize control of a game he was entrusted to dominate, fix whatever was causing him problems, and do what was expected of an ace on Fridays.
Wall might not have realized that he had such options last season, but this year he understands exactly what is required of him. So when he buckled down and pitched into the eighth inning of the Owls' 9-2 victory over the Knights, Wall was simply meeting the expectations of a veteran.
The Owls (22-14, 7-3 Conference USA) claimed the opening game of this key C-USA series by relying on an early offensive burst and on Wall to right his own ship. After facing a total of 13 batters in the fifth and sixth innings, Wall returned for the seventh despite having already thrown 100-plus pitches. He retired the next five batters he faced before being lifted for freshman righthander Tyler Duffey with two outs in the eighth.
"I was just beating myself all night. I was just fighting my command," said Wall, who allowed two earned runs on five singles and three walks with two strikeouts. "I had poor command the first four or five innings, and then I finally just settled down and went out there and threw the ball like I was capable of and not worry about where it was going.
"A little after that I established the fastball and really hit the inside part of the plate a lot better, which made my changeup and slider better."
The Owls were comfortably ahead before Wall surrendered two runs via a wild pitch and an RBI single from Knights catcher Beau Taylor in the fifth. At that juncture Wall (2-4) was not only pitching to secure his second victory, but to preserve the Rice bullpen in advance of two afternoon games against arguably the league's most potent offense.
What Wall needed to do was reestablish the command he showcased while facing just three batters over the minimum through his first four innings. What the Owls needed of Wall was to extend his outing in advance of a Saturday start from senior righthander Mike Ojala, who remains on a pitch count following midsummer elbow surgery. Wall fulfilled both requests en route to a gritty 133-pitch performance.
"When you can save the bullpen and have a lot of guys that are fresh it really makes it easier, and it makes it tougher on their hitters because we've got a bunch of arms that we can throw out there," Wall said. "We should be fresh for (Saturday) and Sunday."
Said Rice coach Wayne Graham: "Even though Duffey pitched he didn't use up anything. (Wall) pitched a good game against a quality hitting team."
Rice didn't provide UCF starter Johnny Sedlock (2-3) the opportunity to match Wall pitch-for-pitch. Overly aggressive in their first at-bat, the Owls remained in attack mode in the second, turning a bunt single by Anthony Rendon, an interference error on Taylor that allowed Michael Ratterree to reach first, and a three-run home run by designated hitter Michael Fuda into a 3-0 lead. Sedlock faced just three batters in the third, with Chad Mozingo, Rick Hague and Jeremy Rathjen recording successive singles to build the advantage to 4-0. Diego Seastrunk worked a bases-loaded walk against Chase Bradford and Fuda added a sac fly off Bryan Brown to up the lead to 7-0 by the close of that inning.
Rathjen tacked on an RBI single that scored Mozingo in the fourth and Mozingo an RBI single that brought home Fuda in the fifth to make it 9-0 and effectively silence the boisterous crowd of 1,545 on hand to witness what UCF (23-13, 5-5) hoped would be a defining game for its program.
"I think we came out here ready to play. I do," Graham said. "Nine runs - I'm not going to complain about that."
Added Rathjen, who finished 2-for-5 with two RBIs: "We really want to win this series. I know they came in playing well, and we wanted to show that we were the better team and we were going to win the game."