May 4, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Now that is how you open a stretch drive.
Armed with the knowledge that outstanding performances need to be the norm, not the exception, over the final month of the regular season, Rice produced a result so ideal that expecting much more would have been gluttonous. The Owls dismantled Texas State 16-2 on Tuesday at Reckling Park, setting the stage for a busy and decisive week of action.
Defensive proficiency? The Owls (27-16) displayed it, turning four double plays while sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon delivered a trio of plays so sublime that only he seems capable of such breathtaking efforts. Offensive execution? Rice went 12-for-20 with 10 RBIs with two outs for masterful situational hitting. Solid pitching? Senior righthander Jared Rogers (5-1) was sharp in a rare midweek start, working five scoreless innings before the bullpen finished up.
"We were sure hoping for that," Rice coach Wayne Graham said of the razor-sharp precision following an eight-day layoff for final exams. "You don't hardly ever know what to expect, but we did have the right kind of practices. It's kind of risky almost to have four intrasquad games leading up, but it's what you need to do to get ready. Even then you're not sure that they'll be ready, but that's the way that you should get ready.
"The guys were relaxed and playing well in the intrasquad games, so it carried over. I'm really happy to see it."
The Owls' home opener against Texas State was rained out on Feb. 23, and with the Southland Conference-leading Bobcats (28-15) sporting a strong RPI (35) and the Owls doggedly in pursuit of an opportunity to host an NCAA regional at Reckling Park, the rescheduling of this non-conference affair made perfect sense. The Owls didn't squander their chance at an impressive midweek victory, and they got going quickly.
The Owls' two-out hitting was awe-inspiring. Jeremy Rathjen gave Rice a 1-0 lead with his solo homer to left field off Texas State starter Brian Borski (1-7) with two outs in the first inning. Rick Hague drove home Michael Fuda with a two-out single to center in the bottom of the second to cap a three-run frame and extend the lead to 4-0. With two outs in the fourth, Chad Mozingo drove in Fuda with a single to right that made it 5-0.
Hague added a two-out, run-scoring double in the fifth and a two-out solo homer in the eighth that capped the Owls' barrage. Sandwiched in between were a two-out, two-run home run from Michael Ratterree in the sixth, a two-out RBI single from Rathjen in the seventh, and a two-run double by Jimmy Comerota three at-bats later that made it 15-1.
"That's what we've got to do. We've got to get clutch hitting with two outs and two strikes," Hague said following his 5-for-6, three-RBI afternoon. "That's what we struggled with early on, and the coaches have been emphasizing that. I think we're doing a lot better, and that's going to help us when the playoffs come."
For a club that scuffled so mightily for stretches this season in these situations, such splendid execution reflected a commitment to coaching, plate discipline, and an unyielding belief the talent was indeed in place.
"They've been working all year on what they're supposed to do," Graham said. "They've got it, now it's just putting it into execution. I hope that they can continue to do it. The key is getting nine guys working on the right things. Some are going to be hitting all the time."
Fuda, who bashed two home runs in his final two at-bats against East Carolina two Sundays ago, has been hitting well of late. He stroked an RBI single in the second, a one-out double in the fourth that resulted in the lone run that frame, and a two-run triple in the fifth before stepping to the plate in the sixth a homer short of the cycle. The dugout was buzzing, but the team approach was so critical to Fuda that when he sent a pitch deep to right field, his primary concern was that he made contact with two strikes, not that he just missed a homer and the cycle.
"They were talking about it before I went up there, and I was trying not to think about it," Fuda said. "Once I got two strikes I was definitely just trying to put the ball in play. When I saw that it had a chance (to clear the fence), I was kind of surprised that I could go (to the opposite field).
"I was just happy to put the ball in play and not strike out, really."
Rogers relied on his defense, which turned two double plays while he was on the mound. Rogers had made four consecutive weekend starts, but the change of pace didn't disrupt his routine or fluidity. Knowing that he is scheduled to pitch the finale at Marshall this weekend, Rogers closed this outing in fine fashion, retiring the final eight batters he faced.
"It's a matter of keep repeating that consistently," Rogers said, "and building on that every outing."
The Owls won't have long to pat their backs. They host Texas Southern on Wednesday night and will fly to Charleston, W. Va., on Thursday for a critical Conference USA weekend series against second-place Marshall. As for setting a tone for the rest of the week, Rice did precisely that.
"This is what we wanted to do," Hague said. "Come out, play good defense, hit the ball around, and our pitchers threw strikes."
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