Seconds become minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Still the 25th ranked Houston Cougars remained huddled out in deep left field of Rice's Reckling Park. The game's long over, but it's almost like UH (23-14) is trying to hide in plain sight, seeking to escape the humiliation of Tuesday night's 11-0 loss to the 16th ranked Rice Owls (24-15).
The defeat was Astros-esque in its completeness. The Cougars got only two hits on the night while striking out 16 times (Rice starter Austin Orewiler struck out 11 Cougars in six innings). Starting pitcher Aaron Garza lasted just a third of an inning, giving up four runs on five hits. The defensive play was atrocious -- generous scoring limited UH to just two errors, though there could have been many, many more given out. This wasn't the type of game the 25th ranked in the program should play.
"We've got to play better," Cougars head coach Todd Whitting said Tuesday night. "We just have to play better baseball. You've got to keep it very simple. We just did not play very good tonight."
There have been a few too many nights this season when the Cougars didn't play very good baseball. But it wasn't supposed to be this difficult for the Cougars. Coming off a trip to the Super Regionals last year, the Cougars were ranked in the top five to start this season with many observers ticketing them for a trip to Omaha and the College World Series come this June. But the team's played in fits and spurts, looking like world beaters one series and incompetent boobs the next. The team's been beset by injuries with several key players out for the season and others in and out of the lineup.
Whitting admires the way his team's dealt with the adversity, but he also notes that the team's just not good enough to win on pure talent alone. There's questions with focus, and he says the team leaders have to step up at some point and take command of the younger players. The team's not having a bad season, but there are too many bad nights coming from a bad mindset. "I'll get the mindset right, you've just got to get down to the root of the problem, and figure out what's going on" he said. "If you look at our body of work, right now, we're not having a bad season. We had a bad night, but I'm not going to make too much out of a bad night, there's no way. I've been doing this too long to freak out and panic over one night.
Some of the team's problems can best be attributed to expectations. It's been a long while since UH baseball was nationally relevant, and it's commonplace for programs to struggle to retain a lofty status once attained as such programs are now the hunted instead of the hunter. And pile on the injuries that UH is dealing with, and it becomes a wonder that the Cougars have won 23 games.
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But the Cougars have won 23 games and are positioned for another invite into the NCAA Regionals in June. This is a good baseball team. It's got players who can hit (like first baseman Chris Iriart who has already blasted 11 home runs this season. And starting pitcher Andrew Lantrip (6-2, 2.70 ERA in 60 innings pitched) has been outstanding, as has reliever Seth Romero (3-3, 2.21 ERA) who has gone between long relief and starting. But a post-season trip is not automatic. The Cougars cannot take that for granted.
"We just have to reevaluate where we're at," Whitting said. "We're in a great position to make the NCAA Tournament, but it's not just going to happen. You've got to go out and win games. You've got to go out and take and earn what you get. Right now, we're just kind of sitting back and hoping things will work out. You can't approach a game like that."
There's one month left in the regular season, 19 games total, with 15 of those being conference games. That's 19 chances to shake off the awfulness of Tuesday's night loss. To put together a streak that will win the conference and put the team into the Regionals. That berth into the College World Series is still there waiting, just as expected this offseason. Only there's no guarantee. The Cougars are going to need to play as if there's no tomorrow, to focus on the game at hand, to play up to their capabilities.
The Cougars return to action tonight when they host conference rival Cincinnati for a three-game weekend series. First pitch is set for 6:30, and it's the perfect chance to put Tuesday night behind in the rearview mirror.