Coogs Stumble As Rice Begins To Find Its Footing

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It's a good day to be a baseball fan in Houston. The Astros are hosting the Giants at Minute Maid Park, the University of Houston is hosting Sam Houston State at Cougar Field, and the Rice Owls are hosting Dallas Baptist at Reckling Park.

It's tempting to recommend the major league baseball. But the best baseball will probably be seen at Reckling Park. The Owls (17-12) are coming off of a three-game weekend sweep of the Houston Cougars (12-14) that had a team that saw its season being written off at this time last week, now sitting in a tie for a first place in C-USA.

The Owls dominated the Cougars in just about every fashion possible, winning 6-0 behind a Taylor Wall complete game one-hitter on Thursday, 11-2 on Friday night, and a thrilling 12-inning 8-7 affair on Saturday afternoon.

"It put us back in the hunt," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "A week ago, the sky was falling, everybody was ready to write off the season."

But instead of being written off, the Owls appear to be trying a last-minute rewrite.

The person leading that rewrite is Taylor Wall. Wall was supposed to be one of the team's pitching aces. Instead, he came into last Thursday's game winless on the season. If he pitches the rest of the season like he did last week, he shouldn't lose again this season.

"We need for [Wall] to be that kind of pitcher," Graham said. "We feel like there's two things going on. First of all he's had some bad luck. And secondly, he hasn't been having much fun. He needed to go out there and really let the ball go and remember it was just fun to throw the baseball. And I think he had a little bit of that going tonight where from the get-go he was having a good time. A lot of our guys are that way. They've been trying to place the ball in the zone instead of just relaxing and having fun throwing the baseball."

Things aren't as bright for the Cougars. The Cougars used the Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park back at the first of March to propel them along on a winning West Coast road trip. The team then won of two of three games against C-USA rival the University of Central Florida to get a good jump on the start of C-USA play.

But since that time, they've lost four straight games.

The losing, Cougar catcher Chris Wallace says, isn't from lack of effort. Especially not Wallace who almost won Saturday's game single-handedly. He went three-for-five, with a single and two homers, including an eighth-inning three-run home run that soared high over the tall black backdrop in Reckling Park's centerfield, and which put the Cougars up 7-6.

But the Cougars, who overcame another bad outing from the starting staff, watched reliever Ty Stuckey fail to close out the game, letting Rice tie it, where it was won on DH Craig Manuel's 12th-inning homer over the rightfield fence.

"It's a tough loss," Wallace said. "We played hard. Everybody played hard. It's a tough way to lose a game right there."

The problem for the Cougars, like it has been to a lesser extent for Rice, has been the starting pitching. Wallace has a handle on what's wrong with the pitching. But he's only the catcher, so it's easy for him to diagnose the problem, but not so easy for him to fix it.

"We just walk a lot of guys," Wallace said. "Our guys go out there, and they do the best they can. They're not trying to walk guys. We're just going to keep working at it, and hopefully, as the season goes, we'll get better at it."

The person charged with fixing the Cougars starting rotation is head coach Rayner Noble. And it's a problem with which he's admittedly struggling.

"It goes back to -- we've got to develop some quality pitching and that falls on my shoulders," Noble said. "I'm in charge of these pitchers, and I've just got to do a better job of getting these guys prepared."

Just as Rice has been depending on Taylor Wall to get straightened out, the Cougars are depending on their team ace, Michael Goodnight, to get it figured out. And what Noble wants him to figure out is the necessity of throwing strikes. Noble's solution, for the moment, is to toss Goodnight back out to the mound on tonight for a short start. From there, Noble hopes Goodnight will be able to come back on Sunday when the Cougars close out a series with TCU.

But perhaps Noble should just adopt the Wayne Graham approach and tell Goodnight to have fun.

After tonight, Rice heads off to a weekend series in Tulane while the Cougars will be hosting TCU for three games. And by this time next week, more will be known about whether Rice's attempted rewrite is working, and whether the Cougar season is ready to be written off, or ready to be rewritten.

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