The Cougar Red infield dirt at Cougar FieldThe University of Houston is a baseball school. There might be a nice shiny new football stadium, but the football team doesn't sell it out. The men's basketball program has a new, big name head coach. But the facility sucks, the team's awful, and nobody comes to the games.
But fans are packing Cougar Field to watch the nation's third-ranked baseball team play some of the best college baseball in the country. The Cougars made the Super Regionals last season, making the team one of the best 16 squads in the nation. It's ranked this season, and this past weekend it took two of three games from one of the country's other nationally ranked programs, Alabama.
The Cougars are 6-2 so far this season, and this weekend the team hosts Columbia for a four game series that promises to offer up some exciting baseball. And that's the thing about the Houston Cougars, it is an exciting baseball team. There are UH players who can slug massive home runs, and there are players who can steal bases, and will, in the blink of an eye. There's good pitching, good defense.
Then there's the electricity that comes from a packed ballpark. The cheering and the yelling and the shouting. There's the gasp of the crowd that comes from a third baseman's driving grab of a laser shot down the line. There's the shocked silence followed by the loud roar that emerges from massive homer run that appears to land in the McDonald's parking lot across Cullen Street. And there are the kids screaming for their fellow players to come say hello after the team's won a game and is heading for the dugout.
The Cougars were trailing Alabama 1-0 in the sixth inning last Friday night. There'd been a problem with a light tower that went dark, causing a delay of the game until the lights were back on which kind of dulled the crowd's enthusiasm. Alabama's starter, Taylor Guilbeau was shutting UH down, having held the team to just two hits while having struck out five batters and walked just one. Then UH second baseman Josh Vidales knocked a one out double followed by walk to catcher Jason Campbell. Then DH Chris Iriart, a Juco transfer in his first season with the Cougars slammed the first pitch he saw for a three run homer. "Energy just filled the whole stadium," said starting pitcher Andrew Lantrip. "For the whole dugout it just gave us a big lift. Before that, we were scattering hits, but we just couldn't put anything really together."
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But the Cougars put it all together after that for the 3-1 win. The Cougars then proceeded to score nine runs in the seventh and eighth innings on Saturday night to pull off a stunning comeback and grab the 14-9 win over an Alabama squad that supposedly featured one of the nation's stellar pitching staffs. And while the Cougars were shut down on Sunday, losing 8-3, the series, was without a doubt, a success for the squad.
Head coach Todd Whitting, the Houston Press' Best Coach for 2014, http://www.houstonpress.com/bestof/2014/award/best-coach-4030511/ has put together a team that's equal parts superior talent, brains, and hustle. He's also instilled in the team a never-get-up attitude, and over the past several seasons, especially last year, the Cougars were known for falling behind in games, but finding a way to stay close until storming ahead for the win.
It's become commonplace over at UH for fans to be disappointed in the athletic teams. There was the football team's having its ass handed to it on the opening night of the brand new stadium. Or that infamous date several years ago when needing only to win the C-USA Title Game to achieve an undefeated season and advance to a BCS Bowl, the football team was instead slaughtered on national television. The basketball's team been through multiple head coaches, defecting players, lawsuits, http://blogs.houstonpress.com/news/2013/10/michael_young_lawsuit_dismisse.php and a pitiful basketball arena. But there should be no disappointment with this baseball team.
This baseball team is young, with Whitting starting four freshman at times. It's talented. It hits. It fields, it pitches. It's resilient. It's a fun team to watch play baseball, and there just hasn't been a lot of fun around UH sports the past the year or so. But that's changing, and UH baseball is leading the way.