So it's off to Austin Regional that the Rice Owls go, and this afternoon at 1 p.m., the Owls (38-21) will begin their quest to return to another College World Series.
The Owls are the number-two seed in the regional, behind the number-one seed Texas Longhorns (46-11). The number-three seed is Louisiana-Lafayette (37-20) and the number-four seed is Rider (36-21). As always, the regionals are played as a double-elimination tournament, with a team being eliminated upon getting its second loss.
Today the Owls take on Louisiana-Lafayette. Texas will take on Rider in the nightcap, and the winners will face off tomorrow night while the losers face off tomorrow afternoon. The regional championship game should be Sunday with another game, if necessary, ready to be played Monday for the right to advance to the Super Regionals. But if the Owls do everything right, then Monday's game won't be necessary.
While it will be important that the Owls continue to hit the ball, it's doubtful that they will be able to continue hitting it at the rate they were hitting the ball last week when they scored double-digit runs in three of the four Conference USA tournament games, and in which they batted around at least once in each of the first three games.
What will be important for the Owls is the team's pitching and defense, for though the team lost the title to Southern Miss by a score of 7-4 last Saturday, the loss might not have happened were it not for poor pitching and poorer defense.
The given with the Rice pitching will be Mike Ojala, the team ace who came on strong to end the season after spending most of the past year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Ojala's confident in his abilities, and he wants the ball. But more important, the team's confident in Ojala, and even more important than that, Rice coach Wayne Graham is confident in Ojala.
"Ojala's a good pitcher," Graham said. "He's always going to give you a quality game. We're counting on him in the Regionals for sure."
Jared Rogers gave the team a series of strong performances to close out the season, and he appears to be getting his game together at just the right time. The problem appears to be Taylor Wall. Wall has the stuff to be an ace, and there were games earlier in the season when he just dominated the opposition -- see for instance Rice's 6-0 victory over the Cougars on April 1.
But Wall appears to have lost his confidence, and Graham wasn't thrilled by Wall's performance in the team's 11-3 win over ECU. Graham liked the attitude he saw Wall several times when Wall got in trouble, but Graham didn't like that Wall wouldn't pitch inside.
"He's got to get inside," Graham said, and that was just something that Wall didn't appear to want to do. But for Rice to have any chances this weekend, Wall's going to need to pitch inside.
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As for the defensive lapses that plagued the team last Saturday, perhaps the game plan followed by senior catcher Diego Seastrunk will be best for the team. "I'd like to say [we use] the same mindset we had coming into this [tournament]," Seastrunk said. "Trying to shrink the game a little bit. Go pitch by pitch and try to win every inning."
Focus did appear to be a problem for the Owls in the loss, and maintaining focus, going pitch by pitch, was a mantra repeated by the team after all of their wins last week.
The only team in the Regional that Rice has faced this year is Texas, and the Horns have won two of the three games, including a 2-1 thriller at the Houston College Classic back on March 5. But the Horns haven't faced the Owls since the moment when everything just seemed to click into place and the team went on a finishing kick that saw the team go 26-11 for its last 37 games. The players have been unable to say just what is that happened, but in that span, they've become an offensive force featuring one of the best player's in the game, Anthony Rendon, Diego Seastrunk, Rick Hague, Chad Mozingo, and Jimmy Comerota.
If that Rice team shows up this weekend and plays with the focus they demonstrated last week and couples it with some strong pitching, then this Owls team could easily be on the way to next week's Super Regionals.