May 26, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Baby steps. All Rice needed sophomore lefthander Taylor Wall to make Wednesday afternoon against East Carolina were a series of baby steps.
In the three appearances following his laborious start at Marshall on May 7, Wall didn't resemble the ace of the Rice staff, a role he filled with aplomb for the balance of the season prior to the Owls' break for final exams. Rice coach Wayne Graham tried to snuff the slump by using Wall in a midweek start at Houston on May 18, and then out of the bullpen against UAB four days later. Both attempts yielded unfavorable results.
In the Owls' opening game of the Conference USA Baseball Championship, Wall was presented with another opportunity to rediscover his winning touch. He did, grinding his way through six innings as No. 20 Rice cruised to an 11-3 victory at Cougar Field.
Wall (5-5) allowed three runs on seven hits and one walk while striking out five. He surrendered solo home runs to Kyle Roller in the first inning and Zach Wright in the fifth, averted catastrophe on a couple occasions, and dug deep to overcome the wayward mechanics at the root of his slump. Wall wasn't perfect, but he was better than he had been of late.
"There were a couple of innings where he did throw well, so that's promising," Graham said of Wall, who worked 103 pitches. "One inning in particular when he got out of it, he threw really well to get out of it."
Wall closed the second inning by striking out Wright, stranding a pair of base runners in scoring position. He fanned Pirates cleanup hitter John Wooten for the second out of the third, an inning in which he stranded two more Pirates. In the sixth, after East Carolina first baseman Jared Avchen scored on a wild pitch, Wall struck out Cameron Freeman before Wright grounded out to Anthony Rendon at third base to end the threat.
That Wall was able to muster enough gumption to navigate those trouble spots represented progress. His fastball velocity wasn't exceptional but his slider was sharp. Graham acknowledged that Wall has work remaining in order to resume his dominating ways, with the first hurdle to clear coming via Wall commanding the inside of the plate.
"He's still not what we're looking for really," Graham said. "The problem is he's not getting the ball inside They got three runs, seven hits and they hit about five other balls right on the screws. He's got to get inside. Last year and this year when he was on top of his game he throws the fastball inside some."
Added Wall, who posted a 17.36 ERA over his three previous appearances: "I thought I needed to throw the ball in a little bit more, and it was running away from me on some guys. But for the most part it was a step forward, and I was pretty satisfied with the outing."
The Owls (36-20) provided Wall a margin for error with another impressive display of power at the plate. Rice pounded out seven extra-base hits, including a two-run home run by junior shortstop Rick Hague in the first that erased the Pirates' 1-0 lead, and a three-run, opposite-field home run by senior catcher Diego Seastrunk that capped the scoring in the eighth. Senior center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh doubled twice from the bottom of the batting order as the Owls bludgeoned East Carolina starter Patrick Somers (1-2) and Pirates reliever Mike Wright.
Seastrunk (3-for-5, five RBIs) delivered the most telling at-bat of the game in the fourth when he made the Pirates (31-26) pay for making the percentage move by intentionally walking Rendon to load the bases with one out. With Rice leading 6-1 and Rendon, the league leader in homers with 22, more than capable of expanding that advantage to eight runs with one swing of the bat, the Pirates opted to challenge the red-hot veteran. Seastrunk responded with a two-run single for an 8-1 lead.
"I'm a contact guy and you've got to play the numbers," said Seastrunk, who is 14-for-22 with eight walks and 13 RBIs over his last six games. "Walking Rendon is no big deal. You're hitting behind him all year; you know it's going to happen eventually. You have to perform when you're hitting behind that guy because they're going to walk him all the time.
"I like the challenge. It's just coming up in big situations like that when they're walking him. It's obviously going to be a big situation and we need a hit right there. I love it. I love having these guys behind me and putting them on my back and coming up big with hits like that. It's fun."
Top-seeded Rice will face the tournament hosts, Houston, Thursday at 7 p.m. The Cougars are the fifth seed of the C-USA Baseball Championship.