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Who Needs the Astros When You Have the Cougars and Owls?

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane is tired of fan complaints about the crappiness of the Houston Astros. Give him $10 million and he'll gladly listen, but otherwise, just pay the team's highly inflated prices for Opening Day and shut up. It's not a very fan-friendly approach to take, especially when he's fielding what many consider to be a minor-league product.

But baseball fans living in the Houston area don't have to continue dealing with the Astros. Not for the next several months, at least. Especially those discerning fans who want to see some good baseball at fan-friendly prices in very fan-friendly environments.

The Houston Cougars and Rice Owls are entering conference play this weekend, and for the first time in several years, both baseball teams are ranked. The Cougars (18-4) climbed into the rankings this week for the first time this season, and are ranked number 28 in the National College Baseball Writers Association poll. The Owls (16-7) are ranked number 24 in this poll and are ranked number 18 in the more prestigious Baseball America poll.

Both teams have gotten to where they are this season by playing sound, fundamental defense, excellent pitching and outstanding base running. Both teams are relatively young, especially the Cougars, who have, at times, started seven freshmen. Neither team is perfect -- the Cougars are young and have some issues with the starting rotation. The Owls are dealing with the same issue they've been dealing with several years, an inability to get a hit with runners on base.

The Cougars will be hosting East Carolina this weekend at Cougar Field to open conference play (one of our top things to do this weekend). It's been quite the week for the Cougars. They swept New Orleans last weekend, defeated Texas in a thriller on Tuesday and tore apart Harvard on Wednesday afternoon.

They're an exciting squad to watch. They have some power, but most of their runs result from doubles and triples to the gap and speed on the bases -- the Cougars stole eight bases on Harvard. The team's paced by shortstop Josh Vidales and first baseman Justin Montemayor. Both have been named Conference USA Hitters of the Week at various times this season, and Vidales, the team's leadoff batter, is currently working on a streak of 16 straight games of having reached base safely.

The ace of the staff is Austin Pruitt (4-1), who has completed two of his five starts and goes out with no-hit stuff every night. The rest of the rotation is still kind of unsettled, however, and head coach Todd Whitting is still experimenting with his other weekend starters. But when the other starters have faltered, the bullpen has come in and shut down the opposition.

"The thing I'm really impressed about with this team is they play hard," Whitting says. "If you play hard -- it's just not the fact that they play hard when they show up at the ballpark on game day -- they practice extremely hard as well, and they've been doing that since we started. Right now, if you deserve to have success, you're going to have it. And I really believe if you work hard, good things are going to happen, and that's what happening for this team right now."  

The Cougars have yet to reach the proverbial bump in the road. There's been no losing streak. There's been no devastating injuries. And while he doesn't want it to happen, Whitting knows that such a time will come this season, and he wants to see how his team reacts.

"At some point we're going to stub our toe," he says. "I'm anxious to see -- I'm not looking forward to it, but it's going to happen -- I want to see how we act when we have a little adversity."

The Owls open conference play this weekend in Hattiesburg, where they will play Southern Miss. The Owls are doing what they always do. Wayne Graham is tossing out a terrific starting pitcher every night and those pitchers, and the defense, are generally keeping the opposition off of the board. What the Owls aren't doing, and what they've struggled with for several years, is hitting, especially when they have runners on base.

"Defensively and pitching, I like our team a lot," Graham says. "I think there's a potential to hit, but like tonight [Tuesday's 3-2 10-inning win over visiting Stephen F. Austin], we get some hits, but we left a runner on third base with one out that we should have scored, and things like that. We're going to have to do better. We're going to have to do better."

Just as the Cougars are paced by a starting pitcher named Austin, so are the Owls, only with Rice the pitcher is Austin Kubitza (3-0 with a microscopic 0.82 ERA and 55 strikeouts in five starts). But while Kubitza anchors the rotation and will start for Rice tonight, the Saturday and Sunday starters, Jordan Stephens and John Simms, are just as capable as shutting down the opposition.

Both teams are hoping to rocket through Conference USA, continue climbing in the rankings and battle for the conference title while cementing spots in the NCAA Regionals on the way to the College World Series. Whitting says the rankings are nice, but what counts isn't where the Cougars are ranked now, but how the team ends the season. And the Owls are used to being ranked, but would rather return to Omaha than anything else.

"I think it's great for the conference, great for Houston," Graham says of the Cougars' return to the rankings. "It's great for the city of Houston to have two quality baseball teams here."

So if you're frustrated by Jim Crane's utter disregard for your concerns as a fan, there's no need to watch the Astros. Just come on out to UH and Rice and watch something that's not going to be seen at Minute Maid Park for another year or so, and that's quality baseball.

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