June 4, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
AUSTIN - For those conspiracy theorists seeking hard evidence that scientists have indeed deciphered the secret to human cloning, there was visible proof on full display Friday afternoon at Disch-Falk Field.
If Louisiana-Lafayette senior righthander Zach Osborne and Southern Miss senior righthander Scott Copeland weren't culled from the same genetic material, one would have a hard time convincing Rice otherwise.
Osborne, a sinkerball specialist like Copeland, twirled a five-hit shutout at the Owls, who fell 1-0 in the opening game of the Austin Regional, a loss that dropped second-seeded Rice into the dreaded loser's bracket.
The Owls (38-22) were blanked for the first time since Caleb Graham and Kyle Sweat combined to scatter 10 hits in a 5-0 setback to UCF on May 8, 2009. After scoring 57 runs in their first 28 at-bats of the Conference USA Baseball Championship last week, the Owls have been held scoreless over 13 consecutive innings. Copeland began that skein with four-plus innings of hitless relief against Rice in the C-USA championship game last Saturday, and Osborne (9-4), a Clear Lake High product, added an emphatic exclamation point with his sparkling gem.
"We thought it was going to help us just seeing that kind of pitching," said Rice junior shortstop Rick Hague, who offset an 0-for-4 game with several sensational defensive plays. "We thought we'd be more prepared and know what to do with it, but he gave us a hard time."
Owls senior center fielder Steven Sultzbaugh was the lone base runner to reach scoring position before the Owls mustered a two-out threat in the sixth inning. Without the benefit of a hit the Owls loaded the bases with two outs, with Chad Mozingo and Diego Seastrunk reaching after being plunked by pitches, Seastrunk after Anthony Rendon drew a walk. But Osborne dug deep to preserve the scoreless tie, striking out Owls designated hitter Jeremy Rathjen, his second of only four strikeouts.
Rice threatened again in the seventh, once more with two outs. Sultzbaugh and Mozingo stroked consecutive singles ahead of senior first baseman Jimmy Comerota, with Mozingo moving into scoring position with a steal during the Comerota at-bat. Again Osborne rose to the occasion, coaxing a grounder to the mound to avert trouble. That 1-3 putout was the first of two down the stretch for Osborne, who induced Sultzbaugh to do the same and cap the second NCAA Tournament shutout for the Ragin' Cajuns (38-20), their first since June 1, 2002.
"It would not be remarkable for him to throw a shutout, but to come in here and just believe that we are going to do that against a good-hitting Rice team, it's just what he does," Ragin' Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said of Osborne, who logged his fifth complete game this season. "He keeps the ball down (and) changes speeds. He has excellent life and movement on his fastball, so it is hard to square him up. Even though he gets tired, he still has run and movement."
Run and movement? Difficulty squaring up? It sounded so familiar.
"It didn't sink as much, but it ran more inward," Hague said in comparing Osborne to Copeland, who incidentally was roughed up by Clemson in the Golden Eagles' Auburn Regional opener. "The difference with him is he stepped at you and kind of came from the side and Copeland was almost right over the top, maybe a little three-quarters.
"He's just tough to square up and tough to get (the ball) in play hard."
As wonderfully as Osborne pitched, the Owls certainly left some opportunities on the bases. The Owls hit into a double play in the first, stranded Sultzbaugh at second in the third and left five runners on with the game tied in the sixth and seventh. Osborne was marvelous, but given their recent experience against a pitcher with a similar arsenal, the expectation was that the Owls would put up more of a dogged fight.
"I had hopes that we would adjust better than we did," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "Overall we just didn't do a good job with the bat.
"I thought some people didn't have good swings. You've got to always have good swings with runners in scoring position. If you can't put a good swing on the ball you shouldn't be swinging at it. So I think we were lacking in some situations in just pure bat speed. You can't get lucky if you don't have bat speed. You can't get the ball out of the infield."
Save for one mistake pitch, a fastball up and away to Louisiana-Lafayette catcher Chad Keefer, Rice senior righthander Jared Rogers (8-2) was just as impressive as Osborne. He worked in and out of danger in the first, fifth and sixth innings, getting ground balls in each frame to stifle serious scoring threats. Rogers carried a streak of 21 2/3 scoreless innings into the eighth before he revealed a slight chink in his armor.
Ragin' Cajuns center fielder Kyle Olasin opened that inning with a double, but was erased between second and third on a pickoff. However, designated hitter Jordan Poirrier (2-for-3 with a walk) advanced to second on the play and scored when Keefer rifled that aforementioned fastball above a leaping Michael Ratterree at second and into right field.
"I just made my worst pitch of the day when I needed to make my best," said Rogers, who allowed seven hits and two walks (one intentional) while striking out one batter. "No excuse for that. I made a bad pitch."
Added Graham: "We weren't supposed to (pitch to Keefer, the Ragin' Cajuns' RBI leader). We were supposed to not throw him anything to hit. It was supposed to be pitches that he might swing at that he couldn't hit. But those things happen, they even happen in the big leagues."
Rice will play fourth-seeded Rider (36-22) in an elimination game on Saturday at 1 p.m. The Owls have advanced beyond the regional round of the NCAA Tournament in each of their five previous appearances, but if they are to do so this weekend they must win four games over three days, including a pair on Sunday.