April 24, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Sometimes Rice sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon makes it far too easy to forget that the game of baseball is actually quite difficult.
Sure, Rendon looked as cavalier as usual when he bashed a three-run home run off East Carolina closer Seth Simmons in the bottom of the eighth inning, a blast that propelled the Owls to a 3-2 win on Saturday after Reckling Park and clinched this critical Conference USA series. But Rendon did his due diligence, consulting Rice pitching coach David Pierce for a scouting report on Simmons before containing his own desire to jump on the first offering Simmons would make in the at-bat.
None of what Rendon accomplishes is easy. He just makes it look so.
"I just wanted to relax and I didn't want to get too anxious and drive my bat and swing for (the fences) like everybody probably thought I was going to do. I probably thought I was going to do that the first pitch, too," Rendon said of his at-bat with Rick Hague and Jeremy Rathjen on base and two outs. "I came in for the scouting report with the coaches and they told me fastball, slider, change, but a slider is his best pitch.
"So I watched him during warm-ups and he was just throwing the fastball, throwing the fastball. He only threw one good slider, and when I saw his slider it was up, up, up. Either he was trying to bait me or it was really hanging. I just wanted to go in there and see the pitches first."
Rendon took the first pitch, an inside fastball, for a strike. Simmons (2-2) missed with his second, and when he hung the third, a slider, Rendon didn't miss. He deposited it over the left-field wall, turning what was a marvelously pitched game by Pirates starter Seth Maness on its ear.
The Owls (25-16, 10-4 Conference USA) can credit Hague and Rathjen for relocating Maness from the mound to the dugout. Maness had retired 11 consecutive batters before Hague worked a two-out walk in the eighth. Rathjen, who looked completely overmatched while striking out three times against Maness, slapped a slider from Maness into left field. Rendon then greeted Simmons with his 14th home run this season.
"Jeremy, even when he's looked bad, has been able to make adjustments all year," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "He hit a low slider and got a base hit and kept us alive and got to Rendon. And that's huge."
Added Rendon: "Rick has been seeing the ball very well the past couple of weeks. Rathjen finally calmed down and he saw the slider and hit it into the hole. I had good faith in him that he was going to let me get up."
With Maness making the Owls "look silly" according to Rendon, Rice had senior righthander Mike Ojala to thank for the manageable deficit in the eighth. For the first time since he initiated his comeback from midsummer elbow surgery, Ojala worked without a pitch count. And after being victimized by a small handful of errant pitches last weekend against UCF in Orlando, a start that resulted in his first career loss, Ojala dominated East Carolina (24-16, 6-5) through seven sparkling innings.
In a performance that was described as "vintage Ojala' by senior catcher Diego Seastrunk, Ojala controlled the Pirates by spotting his fastball inside and mixing in a devastating curveball. He struck out a season-high 10 batters while allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits. Graham had kept his fingers crossed that Ojala would show incremental progress with each outing, but on Saturday he took a huge leap forward.
"He's there. He can win a regional game right now, and he could get better," Graham said. "If he gets any better it's something, because he can win right now (in the postseason) with what he's throwing. There are not many teams that are better hitting teams than East Carolina."
How significant of a hurdle did Ojala clear? In his first six appearances this season he worked a total of 14 innings. He walked 10 batters in those 14 innings, yet did not issue a free pass against the Pirates. He nearly matched his season total of 13 strikeouts and his single-game career high of 11 strikeouts. With at least three regular-season starts remaining, Ojala is already what Graham longed he would be by June.
"It feels like a long time since I've been able to go out there and not have to worry about anything," Ojala said. "I've never thrown a complete game at Rice, so that's a goal this year. I feel like my stuff is good enough to do that right now."
Owls junior lefthander Doug Simmons (3-0) worked a scoreless eighth inning to notch the victory while freshman righthander Tyler Duffey earned his third save with a perfect ninth. The Owls will pursue a series sweep of No. 21 East Carolina on Sunday at Reckling Park at 1 p.m.
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