May 18, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Rice coach Wayne Graham on Tuesday caught a glimpse of the offense that struggled with clutch hitting over the first half of the season and the lineup that has torn the cover off the ball during Conference USA action.
Graham prefers the latter, and the Owls obliged him repeatedly.
After taking an early lead and then scuffling for a lengthy spell, the Owls exploded for a dozen runs over their last four at-bats, cruising past Houston 15-5 at Cougar Field to cap a sweep of the Silver Glove Series.
Rice freshman second baseman Michael Ratterree clubbed two three-run home runs, the first coming in the sixth inning to turn a two-run deficit into a 6-5 lead. Junior shortstop Rick Hague added a three-run blast in the seventh before Ratterree went deep again in the eighth as the 22nd-ranked Owls (33-19) scored at least 15 runs for the ninth time.
"There were a lot of good swings that brought us back in this game," Graham said of a lineup that produced five multi-hit games. "It was a good offensive output. You keep hitting like that, you're in good shape."
Before they hit into a pair of critical double plays in the second and third innings and were retired in order by Houston starter Barry Laird in the fourth and fifth, the Owls struck for three quick runs in the first. Hague bounced an RBI single to center that scored Chad Mozingo, the Silver Glove Series MVP, and scored when sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon hacked the first pitch he saw from Laird over the left-field wall. The Owls appeared poised to expand their 3-0 lead when Craig Manuel and Mozingo reached with one out in the second, but Hague rolled into an inning-ending double play that seemed only a temporary setback.
But after Houston (22-29) scored five runs off Rice lefthander Taylor Wall in the second, the Owls failed to cash in with the bases loaded and no outs in the third. There was no need to fret as freshman righthander J.T. Chargois (3-1) handcuffed the Cougars through the eighth and Ratterree provided the spark necessary to resuscitate the offense.
Ratterree drilled a 3-1 pitch from Mo Wiley (4-3), the first of five Houston relievers, out to center field to take Wall off the hook. Owls center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh, who hacked at the first pitch in his first three at-bats, did so again in the seventh, doubling with Diego Seastrunk and Jimmy Comerota on to build the lead to 8-5. Three batters later, Hague struck the third of a season-high-tying four home runs to increase the advantage to 11-5. Ratterree cranked his 10th homer off James Conlee in the eighth, joining Rendon (22), Jeremy Rathjen (11) and Hague (11) in double figures in that category.
"We're coming out getting plenty of hits every game backing up our pitchers," said Ratterree, whose RBI total of 55 is third behind Rendon (69) and Rathjen (57). "That's what we need to do to win right now.
"All these hitters know that they can hit well. It's contagious."
Convincing Chargois that his stuff is sufficient enough to be a viable bullpen option is the last hurdle Graham and his assistants must clear. After blanking Texas Southern for five innings on May 5, Chargois surrendered three runs in one inning a week later at Oklahoma State. After allowing one inherited runner to score against the Cougars, he buckled down and tore through the Houston lineup with confidence.
"It is difficult," Chargois said of heeding the advice from his coaches and trusting his repertoire. "Going out there in tough situations and having to get the job done or the team is going to suffer is a lot of stress and pressure. It's hard to just relax and get out there. I know I'm just a freshman, but Coach expects a lot from us and I'm supposed to do my job."
Chargois worked a career-long 6 1/3 innings, allowing five hits while striking out three. Better still, he did not issue a walk nor did he plunk a batter, exhibiting superior control than he had in previous appearances.
"He's got good stuff. He's just got to trust himself," Graham said. "These freshmen sometimes if (the opposition) hits one ball hard they quit trusting their stuff. One ball hit hard doesn't mean anything."
The Owls will close the regular season with a three-game C-USA series against UAB at Reckling Park starting Thursday evening. Rice has clinched the No. 1 seed for the league tournament, but with one more victory can claim the outright regular-season C-USA championship.