Coogs Have Pitching Problems As They Face An Underachieving Rice

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The Houston Cougar baseball team got off to a poor start to the season. Coming into the Houston College Classic at the start of the month, the team was 2-5, and they were lucky to have gotten their two wins. Then they pulled off the major upset at Minute Maid Park, sweeping all three games they played -- including a stunning 1-0 victory against Texas -- that propelled the team onto a West Coast road trip where they went 5-4 -- they lost three games to then number-one ranked Arizona State and won a game against Stephen F. Austin before finally returning home to start conference play this past weekend.

The Cougars won two-of-three games against the UCF Knights, including a 20-3 victory on Sunday afternoon. And as they came into action against Texas-San Antonio last night, the Coogs looked poised to go three games over .500 before heading into a three-game series against crosstown rival Rice.

Only Texas-San Antonio refused to cooperate.

Hanging onto a 4-3 ninth-inning lead, Cougar closer Matt Creel saw a man advance to first on a strikeout/passed ball. After getting the next batter to ground out, Creel then proceeded to give up three straight singles, as the Road Runners took a 6-4 lead.

The Cougars attempted to mount a ninth-inning comeback of their own, notching a single and a double with one out to make the score 6-5. But that is how the game ended, with the Cougars losing a game they could easily have won.

"We've got a long way to go as a team, and our team knows that," Cougars' head coach Rayner Noble said after Saturday's win. "Our pitching has to get a whole lot better. Offensively, we've got to do a better job of hitting the off-speed pitches. We know we have a long way to go."

And the pitching doomed the team again last night. James Conlee, making his second start of the year, surrendered three earned runs in three innings. Noble went through four more pitchers in an attempt to get the game to his closer, and those relievers did the job. Only Creel failed.

"I knew that our pitching is so thin that Tuesdays are going to be hully-gully," Noble said last night. "We're going to have to rely on some young arms on Tuesdays. I thought for the most part we bounced back, and guys went out there and pitched well. We just made poor pitches in critical situations."

The game resembled the Cougars' season in many ways. The Cougars hit, but didn't hit when it counted the most. The pitching showed moments of strength, but even more moments of weakness. The big plays were made, the little ones weren't.

The Cougars, now 12-11 on the season, are heading to the Medical Center area to face Rice for three games starting on Thursday night. Rice is off to a tough start on the season, perhaps an even tougher start than the Cougars. Rice, who defeated Lamar 7-2 in Beaumont last night, has a record of only 14-12 this season, and their season is perhaps more disappointing, so far, than the Cougars in that Rice was expected to be one of the top teams in the country, instead of a team battling the Cougars for mediocrity in C-USA.

But Noble's not looking at the problems that Rice is having. He is focusing on his ball club.

"Baseball's baseball," he said. "We've got to tend to our business. If we would have attended to our business tonight, we would have won the game. We just didn't. And that's what we've got to do against Rice. We've just got to play good fundamental baseball."

So the Cougars head into Rice capable of sweeping the Owls. They've shown they're capable of playing really good baseball. Then again, they've also shown that they're capable of getting swept, and Rice has the talent to sweep the Cougars.

The two squads meet on Thursday and Friday at 6:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. The Thursday and Friday games will be televised on Comcast Sports Southwest -- yeah, I still haven't found it on my cable grid either.

There's a chance you'll see some very good baseball, especially when Michael Goodnight pitches for Houston. There's also the chance you'll see some very bad baseball, basically when anybody else pitches for Houston.

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