Stanford's Mark Appel was the focus of Friday's pre-Rice/Stanford season opening talk. But while Appel showed some of the electric stuff that made him the number one choice of the Pittsburgh Pirates last summer, his thunder was stolen by the performance of the Rice Owls pitching staff.
The Owls defeated Appel and his teammates by a 5-1 score on Friday as Rice's Austin Kubitza struck out a career-high 12 batters. Jordan Stephens took the loss 3-2 for Rice on Saturday afternoon despite seven mostly standout innings. But John Simms outshined his teammates as he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning as Rice got the 3-0 win to take the series from Stanford.
Over 27 innings of baseball, the Owls starters and relievers surrendered only 15 hits and four runs. None of the starters were perfect, each having to work around some traffic on the bases caused by walks, but each starter continuously found a way to work out of trouble, and they were aided greatly by catcher Geoff Perrott, who threw out several attempted base stealers.
"As far as the weekend goes, every pitcher was on their game," Perrot said. "Everyone was hitting with their best stuff. It made it pretty easy to call whatever pitch I wanted to call. It worked out for us."
Rice needed the pitching to work out because they were going against a tough Stanford squad that also featured an outstanding pitching staff. The Stanford staff also pretty much shut down the Rice hitters, but the Owls were able to squeeze out just enough hits to take the weekend series.
But the talk of the weekend is the Owls pitching. Despite the hype for Appel -- who showed off an electric fastball while battling some command problems -- the Owls pitchers dominated when they needed, and for the most part threw whatever they needed for strikes just about whenever they needed to throw the strike.
Then there was Simms, who wouldn't have even started but for an injury to Kevin McCanna, the intended starter for Sunday. And Simms, despite having to work out of trouble in the first two innings due to errors and walks, pitched the best game of the weekend.
"I didn't have my curveball where I wanted it for about the first four or five innings," Simms said. "I was just trying to move my fastball in out, up down. You can always get guys out if you show them enough stuff. My split-finger was good, but they didn't have enough lefties in the lineup, they had a lot of righties, so I had to get my curveball going."
Perrott says they just got into a groove, and that being on the same page was the reason Simms was so effective. Perrott said Simms just pounded the strike zone with pitch after pitch.
Astros fans, however, will be more interested in the performance of Appel since Appel turned down the Pirates to return to Stanford for his senior year. And with the Astros having the number one pick in this year's draft, all eyes automatically turn toward Appel, he of the blazing fastball, outstanding breaking balls and Scott Boras as agent.
Appel didn't have his best stuff on Friday, but he was able to keep the Stanford squad in the game. If Kubitza hadn't been throwing lights-out ball, the talk of the weekend might have ended up being Appel's major-league-caliber pitches.
"He's obviously got incredible talent," Rice head coach Wayne Graham said of Appel. "He can throw three pitches that are plus. If he commands it, his slider's plus. His fastball's way plus. He's got a good change-up. It's all there. He's a lock as one of the first five or six picks. Maybe number one."
Graham said Appel's stuff was what one sees when facing major league pitchers. The only thing lacking was command, but he believes Appel's command will come with work.
Appel's stuff, when he commanded it, did show why the Pirates drafted him, and it also showed why Appel and Boras thought they deserved a bit more than what the Pirates were offering him for the contract. And if Appel works on his command and keeps hitting the mid-90s on a consistent basis with the fastball, then the Astros might not have much of a choice but to take him when the draft comes around in June.
But so much for the Mark Appel talk. The real talk of the weekend was the outstanding performance of the Rice starting pitching staff, which matched Stanford pitch for pitch, inning for inning. The Owls won the weekend series, and for the Owls, that's all that matters.