This is not the best baseball team that Wayne Graham's coached in his years at Rice. This isn't the best of the 19 straight Rice teams to advance into the NCAA postseason, or the best Owls team to go to its tenth Super Regional since 1999, the first year of the Super Regionals. And this team definitely isn't on par with the six Rice teams that have advanced to Omaha and the College World Series.
But those 19 teams don't matter. What past squads did in the Super Regionals, or in the College World Series, is of no concern. The only thing that matters is what this year's team can do. This team might not have the overall talent of those past squads -- there's no Lance Berkman, Anthony Rendon, Bubba Crosby or Jeff Niemann on this squad -- but this team shares qualities with all of those other great Rice squads, and because of those shared qualities, this Rice Owls team has the ability to make it to Omaha.
If it can get past the Wolfpack of North Carolina State, that is. But for that to happen, it's going to have to have a repeat of the performance it had last weekend when it shocked the number one seed in the Regional (Oregon) and became only the second non-one seed to advance to this year's Super Regionals.
The Owls won two close games last week (3-2 in 11 innings over San Francisco on Friday, and 1-0 over Oregon on Saturday). The team was blown out by Oregon on Sunday when the pitching fell apart, but then came back and demolished Oregon on Monday night. In the wins, the Owls played close to perfect baseball. The pitching excelled, much as it has in all of the team's wins this season, and the offense did just enough to get the wins.
It might be a bit tougher for the Owls this weekend because the Wolfpack are starting Carlos Rodon, one of the best pitchers in college baseball (9-2 record on the season) tonight. In five career postseason appearances, Rodon has given up just 12 hits in 37.2 innings while striking out 10.75 batters per nine innings with a 0.78 ERA. Rice's Graham compares Rodon to Mark Appel, yesterday's number one draft choice of the Houston Astros. Rice ace Austin Kubitza takes the mound against Rodon. Kubitza's no slouch on the mound, and he's often the guy in the Rice rotation who faces up against the best pitcher on opposing teams -- like when Kubitza defeated Appel earlier this season. He's also used to pitching with poor run support, but he might have to be near perfect tonight.
The closest the Owls have had to perfection the past month is Saturday's starter, Jordan Stephens -- in the second game of the C-USA Conference Tournament, Stephens took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and he got a two-hit complete game shutout of Oregon last Saturday. And if the Owls go to Sunday, John Simms will get the start.
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Simms has developed a slider over the course of this season, which Graham believes is a dominating pitch. If he's on, as he was at the Conference USA tournament, NC State will have trouble getting runners on base. If he's off, as he was last Sunday against Oregon, then the Owls will be in trouble.
But it's not going to be enough for the Owls pitching staff to shut down NC State. The offense is going to have to score runs. Last weekend the Owls found a way to get things done, primarily because Ford Stainback and Christian Stringer found ways to get on base and the guys who bat behind them were able to knock them in. Anybody who has watched the Owls this season (and the past several seasons) knows that Stainback and Stringer have usually been able to get on the base, but that they've been stranded in scoring position way too often. The Owls don't need to score 11 runs, like they did in the clincher against Oregon, not with the starting pitching staff, but if they approach the double digits when it comes to runners left on base, the team will be in trouble.
There is an injury concern for the Owls with catcher Geoff Perrott having injured himself last Sunday. His backup, freshman Hunter Kopycinski, excelled on Monday, going four for five with two runs scored and four RBI. But the Owls are currently expecting Perrott to be able to play, which will be bad news for any NC State runners who should get on base because Perrott is one of the best college catchers when it comes to handling opposing base runners.
This might not be Wayne Graham's best team in his tenure at Rice. But with 997 career wins under his belt, if the Owls can win this weekend, this team stands poised to get Graham his 1,000th win while playing in the College World Series.