The Rice Owls might have already clinched a share of the Conference USA baseball championship, and they might have already clinched the number-one seed in next week's C-USA tournament.
But don't tell the Owls that these remaining three regular season games don't count.
The Owls (34-19) hosted the UAB Blazers (27-24) last night, and the Owls came away with a rather easy 5-2 victory to go to 16-6 in conference play. But along with getting the win, the Owls continued with their quest to gain momentum heading into the tournament, they continued towards a goal of hosting a NCAA Regional, and most important, they just might have found another pitcher to go with Mike Ojala as the team heads into the postseason.
Jared Rogers, making his 12th start of the season, pitched easily his best game of the season, going 7.2 innings and giving up only four hits and no runs.
Rogers has struggled this season, not always having confidence in himself, not always having the proper focus. But Owls coach Wayne Graham thinks Rogers is ready.
"It's there," Graham said. Rogers "[just has to] mentally charge and focus on every pitch, not coast, that's all he's got to do. He's got to trust himself. He's got good control. Tonight he had a real good slider, good velocity. The ball moved. It was real. What he did to them was real. He really pitched well."
Rogers was beat around his last performance, and he was thankful that he was able to get back on the mound so quickly after his last game.
"It felt good to come out here and throw well," Rogers said. "Especially after the last outing I was pretty much mad at myself all week, so it was good to come out here as soon as I could and get another outing under my belt."
Rogers faced a battle that Rice pitchers haven't dealt with too often this season. The battle of pitching a game where his offense was being shut down by the opposition.
The score was only 2-0 when Rogers left the game after surrendering a single in the top of the seventh with two out. But he said he rather enjoyed the game and preferred pitching in this kind of game as opposed to one where his offense "scores10 runs every inning" because it helped him to keep his focus.
The score was close because, while the game was just one of momentum and postseason seeding for Rice, it was a game of huge import to UAB in that they need every win they can get this weekend to make the C-USA tournament. And UAB starter Mitch Kloskowski did everything possible to shut down Rice, keeping the hitters off-balance with a good mix of junk pitches in his five innings of play.
The Owls jumped off to the 1-0 lead in the second inning when Anthony Rendon, who led off the inning with a walk, scored on Jimmy Comerota's sac fly. Rice added to the lead in the fourth inning when Diego Seastrunk connected on a pitch and drove deep over the wall in right field.
That's where the score stayed until the bottom of the eighth inning where Rice tacked on three runs, the first two runs scoring when Jeremy Rathjen, who has recently been struggling with the bat, doubled to the right field gap to plate Daniel Gonzales-Luna and Rick Hague.
Those runs were key as reliever Abe Gonzales struggled for Rice in the top of the ninth, allowing two runs to make the final score 5-2.
With the win, the Owls kept their momentum going as they head into the tournament, and they hopefully solidified their rotation. But Graham is also hoping that a streak at the end of the season can propel his team further ahead through the C-USA tournament and into a hosting spot for one of the NCAA regional rounds.
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"I think it's important that we win," he said. "We're trying to win the ballgames because you can't count on anything. I don't want to count on anything. You can't count on out getting into a regional, and you can't count on our not hosting. You win them all, you keep the possibilities open."
And after last night's 5-2 win, open the possibilities still are.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
After last night's game, with two games remaining in the C-USA regular season, Rice is the sure number-one seed. But UAB, which held the sixth and final seed, is at the moment out of the tournament as UAB now has the same record as the Houston Cougars who won last night. UH has the tiebreaker over UAB. But the positions could easily flip-flop over the remaining games and UAB could regain the final spot over Houston....Mike Ojala gets the start for Rice tonight, and TBA goes for Rice on Saturday. Tonight's game is at 6:30, and Rice and UAB close out the regular season at 1:00 on Saturday.