April 17, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
ORLANDO, FLA. - Some swung at fastballs in on the hands while others hacked at changeups low and away. Nearly every member of the Rice batting order chose at one time or another to swing early in the count against UCF righthander Owen Dew, doing so with no rhyme or reason.
That approach left Rice coach Wayne Graham equally peeved and miffed in the aftermath of the Owls' 6-4 loss to the Knights on Saturday at Jay Bergman Field. After coming tantalizingly close to knocking Dew from the game in the third inning, the Owls' confounding impatience at the plate let Dew settle down in the fourth and pitch deep into the ninth.
"Early we swung at a lot of pitchers' pitches," Graham said. "I thought he pitched well, but we helped him by swinging early in the count at pitchers' pitches, pitches we weren't set to hit and had no reason to swing at them. Easy outs, that's exactly what I saw."
Rice (22-15, 7-4 Conference USA) saw its lead in the league standings sliced to one game because Dew (5-1) took advantage of the Owls' impatience and because the Owls' rested bullpen could not keep the Knights (24-13, 6-5) from tacking on runs in the fifth, sixth and eighth.
Dew did not throw his 100th pitch until Owls left fielder Michael Fuda worked a one-out walk in the ninth. His resilience was remarkable considering how close he was to an early exit in the third, when Rice center fielder Jeremy Rathjen singled home Jimmy Comerota with two outs just prior to third baseman Anthony Rendon reaching for the second consecutive plate appearance via a hit by pitch. Rice designated hitter Diego Seastrunk followed by crushing a 3-1 pitch to right-center field that Shane Brown corralled on the warning track, and even though the Owls failed to add to their 2-1 lead, Dew appeared to be in trouble.
When Dew reappeared in the fourth armed with a 3-2 lead, the Owls allowed him to slip into cruise control. Dew needed just seven pitches to record three outs in the fourth, and just eight to complete the fifth. The Owls raised a ruckus in the sixth and seventh, but Dew escaped by inducing a pair of inning-ending double plays to keep the Owls at bay.
Seastrunk was ruled to have slid into UCF second baseman Austin Johnston following a throw from Chris Taladay at third, a decision that resulted in Michael Ratterree being called out at first and the run Rathjen tallied being wiped off the scoreboard. In the seventh, after UCF stretched its lead to 5-2, Rice right fielder Chad Mozingo grounded into an inning-ending double play, doing so on the first pitch he saw from Dew after catcher Craig Manuel drew a one-out walk and Comerota was hit by a pitch. Fuda tapped out to Dew on the first pitch of the seventh.
"The secret to hitting is hitting the pitches you can hit and taking the ones you can't, and we weren't doing that," Graham said. "Guys were swinging at pitches running right in on their fists and changeups that were (away), and they weren't behind (in the count) when they did it."
Said Rice shortstop Rick Hague, who finished 0-for-5: "If we could do it again we'd take a lot more pitches because a lot of times we were hitting strikes, but they were tough balls to hit. If we would have watched more pitches we could have got him out of the game earlier at least, and probably got a lot more walks out of it.
"We had a lot of guys go up hitting first pitch, second pitch. Just get the average pitch-to-batter ratio up; that's how good teams beat pitchers when they're pitching well."
Dew, who walked just two and struck out only one batter, exited after Comerota bounced an RBI single over shortstop Darnell Sweeney with one out in the ninth, scoring Fuda. Mozingo followed by driving a fly ball to center field off UCF closer Joe Rogers, scoring pinch runner Daniel Gonzales-Luna, but Hague was retired to end the threat in the ensuing at-bat. Hague flew out to Brown on the first pitch he saw from Rogers.
Rice senior righthander Mike Ojala (2-1) absorbed his first career defeat in 15 decisions. He struck out six through four innings, but the first three hits he surrendered resulted in UCF runs, including a solo homer to UCF designated hitter Ryan Breen on the first pitch of the second. Sweeney and left fielder Chris Duffy added RBI singles in the third.
"I wasn't very good," said Ojala, who allowed four hits, walked three batters, uncorked a wild pitch, and was guilty of a balk. "I needed to make better pitches in better situations. I just didn't get it done."
The bullpen failed to keep the deficit at a run after Ojala departed down 3-2. Junior lefthander Abel Gonzales surrendered two runs over two innings while freshman righthander J.T. Chargois allowed the sixth and final run on a double to Ronnie Richardson in the bottom of the eighth.
The Owls and UCF will contest the rubber match on Sunday at 11 a.m.