Sunday morning starts with a chill. The air's heavy with fog and mist. There's not much of a crowd at Reckling Park, but none of this is stopping the Rice Owls and East Carolina Pirates from playing baseball. The Owls are up 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning when the skies open, stopping play for just over an hour.
By the end of the day, the Owls have lost 2-1, dropping its sixth game out of the last nine to go 22-12 for the season. The country's 12th ranked team is in a slump, not hitting, not executing defensively. The team's beset by injuries, losing shortstop Leon Byrd to an ankle injury last week against Texas, and losing starter Zech Lemond to an as-of-yet unspecified injury on Friday night.
The Owls being in free-fall is strange. It was just several weeks ago the team had won 12 of 13 games and were soaring up the national ranks. But it was at that time the Owls lost 6-2 to the Houston Cougars that things started to fall apart for Rice. The Cougars meanwhile have continued to climb, winning games left and right, passing Rice in the rankings (UH is now ranked 10th), shaking off the better part of a decade where that team could do little right.
The Cougars are 25-6 for the season and have gone 16-4 since the Houston College Classic at the beginning of March. The Cougars resemble Rice in many ways, relying on outstanding pitching, strong defense, and smart base running. Both teams play tough schedules -- the Cougars have the third best RPI in the country, while Rice's is 15th. But while Rice lost two of three to conference foe ECU this weekend, the Cougars took two of three from conference foe Rutgers this weekend.
"We're not executing well in the field or at the bat," Rice's Wayne Graham said after last Tuesday's loss to Texas. "Obviously we're going to have to get that straightened out or we're in trouble."
And while the Owls play in the field didn't seem bothersome this weekend, the team's inability to execute with the bat -- a problem with which the Owls have seemingly been dealing for years -- haunted the team time and time again. The Owls offense is dependent on first baseman Skyler Ewing for power and RBI and DH/catcher John Clay Reeves for RBI and getting on base. But there's nobody else that Graham can depend on to deliver on a consistent basis, which puts more and more stress on a pitching staff stretched thin to be perfect.
The Cougars pitching has been outstanding, but unlike with the Owls, the offense has been executing as needed. Casey Grayson knocks in the runs and Frankie Ratcliff and Kyle Survance tear up the bases, scoring runs and stealing bases. It's a fun team to watch, and one that hasn't shied away from playing some of the best teams in the country.
But head coach Todd Whitting is not satisfied, vowing after this weekend's 2-1 win over Rutgers to continue working on the offense so that the pitching doesn't have to continue pitching on the edge.
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"We caught some breaks in [this weekend's] game and if we don't, we don't win that game," Whitting said. "But a sign of a good team is one that can win and not play on their best day. We have some things we need to address next week in practice. I am proud of them on a weekend where we didn't really have it to come away with two wins."
It seems the Owls have been in this position in years past, hitting a mid-season slump causing doubt as to the team's chances of advancing to post-season play. But the Owls have always found ways to adjust with guys coming in from the bullpen to take key roles in the rotation, or a bench guy providing a surprising bat. Yet it all seems worse right now, the injuries more devastating, the inability to hit more dire.
The Cougars are in spot not seen in several years. High in the rankings, angling to host a NCAA Regional. The team's in a tough conference with several teams, including Houston, grouped at or near the top. The pitching staff needs to remain healthy, the offense needs to deliver.
The Owls are on the road for the next two weeks, playing at UT this week, three at Tulane next weekend, and at Lamar next Tuesday. It's a tough way for Rice to get healthy and return to the winning side of the ledger. The Cougars return home tomorrow night, hosting Texas State before hosting conference foe Louisville at Cougar Field next weekend. The baseball will be excellent and exciting and well worth the admission price.