The Rice Owls opened this college baseball season the same way it ended last year's college baseball season, by losing a game to the Texas Longhorns. Of course, yesterday's 4-3 loss to Texas didn't end Rice's season the way last year's loss in the NCAA Regionals did, but one would not be faulted for thinking it was the same thing all over again.
The Owls won two of four games against the Horns over the weekend. Three of the four games featured outstanding pitching -- Rice's pitchers recorded 17 strikeouts alone in yesterday's loss. Rice also led Texas for most of every game, watching late inning defensive miscues key the two losses. Then there was the familiar bit about Rice continuously having base runner after base runner after base runner, yet failing to score.
"We just didn't get the big hit when we needed it today," Owls head coach Wayne Graham said after yesterday's loss. "One hit with runners in scoring position and we're really in business. It felt like we were going to win anyway though, but it just didn't work out."
The same could be said about Friday's 3-1 loss to UT. A game which, like Sunday, featured an outstanding appearance by Rice's starting pitcher and that Rice loss because two defensive miscues allowed all three of UT's runs across the plate. It was also a game which featured the familiar offensive dysfunction of the first two batters reaching base, then failures to bunt the runners over followed by a ground out to end the inning.
Rice could have gone for the easy wins this weekend, scheduling some cupcake so as to get an easy series sweep. But Rice, a nationally ranked powerhouse angling to make it back to Omaha this summer opened the season with Texas, another nationally ranked powerhouse angling to make it back to Omaha this summer. And this weekend Rice visits Arizona, a nationally ranked college baseball powerhouse angling to make it back to Omaha, then comes next weekend when Rice hosts Stanford for four games. Stanford is, you guessed it, a national college baseball powerhouse angling to making it to Omaha for the College World Series this summer. It's a difficult way for a team to open a long season, facing a power right out of the box. But Rice baseball hasn't been known for backing down from challenges the last several decades because an opening series against a strong contender can go a long way in ensuring a season-long stay in the rankings as well as helping out with seedings once the postseason comes around.
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Non-conference play doesn't ease up for Rice. Throw in three games spread out over the season against crosstown rival and highly ranked power Houston along with several games against always difficult Sam Houston State and some midweek games featuring TCU and Texas A&M, the Rice out-of-conference schedule is full of teams normally seen only by other teams once the post-season begins.
Rice will use the out-of-conference schedule for more normal out-of-conference reasons. Graham will tinker with his starting rotation, as need be, as he attempts to get it set before the conference schedule kicks in. He'll play around with his starting lineup and the batting order, looking for just the right mix. Because while the strength of the out-of-conference schedule is important for the postseason, there is no postseason if things don't go well in conference play, and Rice baseball is known for dominating conference play.
And it wasn't actually a negative weekend for the Owls. Rice swept a Saturday doubleheader and had double digit hits in each game. Freshman outfielder Ryan Chandler killed the ball and provided some good defense. The pitching staff, as always, was fantastic, and one of Graham's biggest jobs at the moment is figuring out which member of the bullpen fills which role. Then there was Jordan Stephens return from Tommy John surgery last year. He pitched an inning yesterday and hit 95 on the radar, the highest number he's ever hit.
Rice won two baseball games against one of the best baseball schools in the country. If the defensive execution had been better, or if the hitters get a few hits with runners in scoring position, it's very possible that Rice wins all four games this weekend. The team's in good shape with excellent pitching, depth, and loads of talent. It's not a question of whether Rice will win games this season, it's of question of how many games the team will win, a question of whether Rice will host a Regional, and a question of whether Rice will return to Omaha for the College World Series come June.