May 20, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
It has become a prevailing theme for Rice pitchers, with Owls coach Wayne Graham preaching the same mantra to vets and freshmen alike.
Trust your stuff. Graham and pitching coach David Pierce can study film, tweak mechanics and discuss strategy for hours on end, but once the game starts and the pitcher toes the rubber, he is left to his own devices. Graham and Pierce pay occasional mound visits to offer reassurance or reinforce teaching points, but ultimately it's on the pitcher to perform.
Two nights after freshman righthander J.T Chargois embraced the message of self-reliance, senior righthander Jared Rogers did the same, taking a shutout into the eighth inning of a 5-2 win over UAB at Reckling Park, a victory that clinched outright the Conference USA championship.
Rogers (7-1) struggled in two of his previous three league starts, failing to get out of the third inning against East Carolina and Southern Miss. Against UAB (27-24, 10-12 C-USA) he was in control from the opening pitch and didn't relent until he was lifted for Abel Gonzales in the eighth.
"It's there. Just mentally charge and focus on every pitch and not coast," Graham said of the keys for Rogers. "That's all he's got to do. He's got to trust himself. He's got good control; tonight he had a real good slider. He had good velocity, the ball moved - it was real. What he did to them was real. Lots of strikes. He really pitched well. He's got to trust his stuff."
The indicator for a successful outing for Rogers was the accumulation of 13 ground-ball outs, a stat predicated on the sharpness of his slider. When his breaking ball bites, Rogers consistently induces the opposition to pound balls into the turf, leaving his skilled teammates to make plays.
Junior shortstop Rick Hague and sophomore third baseman Anthony Rendon delivered defensive gems to bookend the second inning. Hague made a diving stop of a grounder from UAB designated hitter John Frost, preventing the ball from reaching center field before springing to his feet and firing to first base for the out. Two batters later Rendon charged a high chopper behind the mound, scooping the ball on a short hop to retire Blazers right fielder Ryan Ussery and complete the frame.
Rogers retired UAB in order in the third and sixth innings, and stranded solo base runners in the fourth, fifth and seventh. He was lifted with two outs in the eighth after UAB center fielder Jamal Austin slapped a single to right, completing his night by allowing four hits with four strikeouts.
"I felt it earlier in this outing than most," Rogers said. "I felt I had my best slider that I've had in a while. I was throwing a lot of strikes and working down in the zone especially. Even when I miss I want to make sure that I miss down. I was getting a lot of ground balls.
"It's just a matter of staying committed to the low zone and staying out of the middle of the plate."
Added Graham: "That will win - period. That will win a regional or anything else. That's the way he pitched against LSU last year at (the Baton Rouge Super Regional), and that's the way he pitched against Xavier (in the Houston Regional). They were good-hitting teams."
Rogers didn't need much run support, and the 22nd-ranked Owls (34-19, 16-6) provided very little until scoring three insurance runs in the eighth. Michael Ratterree and Diego Seastrunk produced the first two runs with an RBI groundout in the second and a solo home run in the fourth, respectively, while UAB righthanders Mitch Kloskowski (5-5) and Benji Waite kept the hot-hitting Owls in check. But in the eighth, after Craig Manuel and Hague singled around a Chad Mozingo fly out, sophomore center fielder Jeremy Rathjen roped a 2-2 pitch from Waite into the right-center field gap, scoring pinch runner Daniel Gonzales-Luna and Hague to double the lead to 4-0 with just one out in the frame.
That two-run double qualified as fortuitous timing for Rathjen, whose average dipped 25 points via an 8-for-36 slump over a nine-game span. Rathjen singled to left in the sixth to chase Kloskowski, and that positive development paved the way for his delivery in his following at-bat.
"Getting a hit the at-bat before always gives you a little confidence," said Rathjen, who was 2-for-4 with two RBIs and scored when Rendon followed with an RBI single. "You try to go out there with the same confidence every at-bat, but knowing you got a hit the time before helps."
Graham had contemplated dropping Rathjen in the order in an attempt to stifle his slump, but he reconsidered. The non-move paid dividends.
"He's tensing up a little, he wasn't loading up enough," Graham said of Rathjen, whose multi-RBI game was his team-leading 19th but just his third over the last 10 games. "I spoke to him earlier in the game when he wasn't loading up at all, and there you go. He's right back at it doing it."