The college baseball season is a marathon. It's nice to sprint out to a lead at the start, but the finishing kick at the end is just as important. And with seven games left in the Conference USA baseball tournament at Rice's Reckling Park, eight teams are kicking into full sprints.
The most impressive kick so far is from the Rice Owls. The Owls went at a steady pace for the regular season, never getting too big a lead, winning the conference regular season title on the last day of the season. They've now won their first two games of the tournament with astounding ease, the team's pitching staff shutting down the opposition with ease, the offense actually showing some life. And if they can shut down the Memphis Tigers (also 2-0 in the tournament) tomorrow morning, the Owls will play for the tournament title and a NCAA regional bid on Sunday afternoon.
The Houston Cougars sprinted out to a quick start this season, but faded as the regular season hit the midpoint. But they started to get back into gear the last weeks of the regular season, and after yesterday's 9-4 win over high-seeded East Carolina, the Coogs find themselves in a strong position to battle Rice on Sunday -- if the Cougars can upset Southern Miss this afternoon and take out Tulane tomorrow.
The key for both teams this week has been pitching. Houston's Austin Pruitt overcame a rough start yesterday -- surrendering four straight singles and three runs in the first inning -- to get the complete game victory. The Cougar offense came to life in the third inning, scoring four runs to get UH the lead, and the team never looked back.
UH head coach Todd Whitting didn't like his team's start, saying the team was sluggish, and added that Pruitt struggled to find his groove. But his team didn't let the poor start get to them, and easily handled ECU the rest of the way.
"Scrappy effort," Whitting said. "That's kind of our MO the whole year; they don't stop playing. To go down 3-0 to one of the best teams in our league. I'm really proud of our kids."
Rice started the tournament with a 3-1 win over UAB Wednesday night, with staff ace Austin Kubitza getting the win. But as outstanding as Kubitza looked, his performance was outshone by mound-mate Jordan Stephens, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in Rice's 5-1 win over UCF last night (Stephens left after 5.2 innings, having given up 1 hit, 2 walks and just one run). Everything Stephens did worked, and the Owl relief corps kept up the superb pitching as UCF struggled to get runners on base. Stephens said he had an awful bullpen session right before the game, and wasn't expecting to have good stuff during the game, but once he got the first out, he knew things would be good. And Rice coach Wayne Graham said Stephens left early in the sixth so that he would be available to pitch in the tournament championship game on Sunday.
"You would be lying to say as a pitcher if you didn't say you noticed after the first inning," he said of the no-hit bid he took into the sixth. But that didn't affect what he threw because he had to use all of his pitches, and he said his fastball, curve and slider were all working.
The tournament is a pod tournament, two pods of four teams each. The winner of each pod plays for the championship on Sunday afternoon. Rice and Memphis play in the same pod and both are 2-0, with the winner Saturday advancing Sunday. Memphis stymied the Owls just two weeks ago, shutting down the Owl offense, but the Owls will without a doubt care less about past results if they get the win tomorrow.
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The Cougars are tied with Southern Miss for the lead in their pod, and if the Coogs can pull off the win over Southern Miss this afternoon, the pod should be theirs for the taking, though Coach Whitting said his guys can't think like that. Instead, they just have to go out and play each game, each team, the same way.
"They just know to play the next game," he said.
The Conference USA postseason baseball tournament hits day three of four later today at Rice's Reckling Park. The Owls have an off-day, as does their Saturday opponent, Memphis. The Cougars play today's middle game of three, set to start at 3:00. Tulane faces ECU at 11:00 and UAB and UCF are the late game at 7:00. For Saturday's action, the Owls and Memphis go at 11:00, UH and Tulane at 3:00, and ECU and Southern Miss at 7:00, with the championship game on Sunday.
The marathon's almost over. The Owls and Cougars are hitting the finishing kick sprint as the finish line comes into view. But for one of these teams, maybe for both, the NCAA Regionals are just around the corner.