April 20, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
COLLEGE STATION - There was no reason to deny what was blatantly obvious to every set of eyes at Olsen Field on Tuesday night, so Rice coach Wayne Graham and Owls third baseman Anthony Rendon didn't even bother skirting the central issue or delivering false statements.
The Owls had the air from a balloon inflated by their gritty series victory at UCF last weekend deflated by three errors that resulted in Texas A&M scoring seven unearned runs in the fifth inning. Rice trailed 7-1 when the carnage was complete, and the game could have been called at that juncture for the Owls lost by that same score to their regional archrivals.
"I wanted to come back and score 10 runs on them, but everybody looked so down. It's hard to pick everybody back up," Rendon said of the fateful fifth. "There were only a couple of guys that wanted to keep playing and keep going. It was hard to pick up the rest of the team."
Added Graham: "That (fifth) inning really took something out of our hitters mentally. It shouldn't, but it did."
The source behind the Owls' demoralization was a sincere concern for the culprit behind the miscues. Junior shortstop Rick Hague, a revered member of the program, three-year starter and former All-American, was guilty of all three mistakes in the fifth. His three-base throwing error with one out opened the floodgates on Rice righthander Boogie Anagnostou, who had pitched brilliantly through four frames. Hague booted a ground ball off the bat of Aggies catcher Gregg Alcazar and later threw a ball past second baseman Michael Ratterree on a potential fielder's choice that would have ended the inning. The Aggies tacked on three additional runs to essentially snuff the Owls' hopes for a rally.
Hague, whose error in the seventh was his fourth of the game and 22nd on the season, was benched after experiencing similar defensive struggles just prior to the Owls' Conference USA opening series at Memphis. He quickly righted his ship, much to the joy of his teammates and Rice supporters, for his productivity is exceeded only by his gentlemanly behavior. His recovery was a welcomed sight for all.
But Hague committed two errors in the series finale at UCF, and suddenly concerns over his throwing mechanics have reemerged. The Owls have methodically climbed back into the conversation for hosting an NCAA Regional, but the fact is they can't afford to fritter away games like they did against the scuffling Aggies (21-14-1). Equally true is that Rice (23-16) won't go far without the talented Hague manning short.
"The only thing we can do is put (starting first baseman) Jimmy (Comerota) at short and Abe (Gonzales) at first like we did before," Graham said. "That's all we can do. Or go with what you've got and hope the guy will tell himself, `To (heck) with it,' and just lets her go."
Said Rendon: "We have to keep encouraging him and let him know that it's going to be alright. We've got a few games left, and we've got to just tell him to keep battling, keeping encouraging him and keep working with him when we're in practice. There's not much else we can do."
The Owls clawed their way to a 1-0 lead against Aggies righthander Clayton Ehlert, with Comerota scoring on a passed ball in the fourth. But momentum subtly swung an inning later when right fielder Chad Mozingo was picked off first base by Ehlert to close the fifth. Rice first-base coach Patrick Hallmark was convinced Ehlert balked on the play, and his protest resulted in his immediate ejection. In the bottom half of that frame the Aggies got rolling against Anagnostou (2-3) and three other Rice relievers, two of which plunked Aggies with the bases loaded.
Both Anagnostou, who allowed four unearned runs on three hits while striking out two over 4 1/3 innings, and freshman Chase McDowell (two scoreless innings of one-hit relief) gave Graham hope in his endless search for capable righthanders out of the bullpen. Anagnostou was pulled in part because his exceptional pitching convinced Graham that he could be an asset this weekend against C-USA rival East Carolina.
"I was real thrilled with how I pitched tonight," Anagnostou said. "I did what I could out there, and there were some things that happened in the game that I couldn't really control. I tried to keep on throwing strikes and do what I can. (Graham) said I did nothing wrong and I did well."
McDowell, a College Station native and two-way player, made his first mound appearance since the season opener at Stanford on Feb. 19.
"He's got a good arm, and even though he was a little wild he was able to get the ball in there," Graham said of McDowell, who struck out two. "Maybe he's a guy that we probably should have looked at more, and obviously we're going to look at him."
It was hard to feel overly positive given the developments of the night. Ehlert, a senior, pitched his first complete game, striking out eight while allowing just four hits. After the Aggies rallied against the Owls' porous defense, Ehlert allowed just one base runner over his last four frames.
Rice, seeking an RPI boost at A&M, must pick up the pieces yet again, and it must rally around a teammate vital to its postseason hopes.
"When we play like that," Rendon said, "we don't deserve to win."