The University of Houston will be hosting the Conference-USA Baseball Tournament come the last week of May. But while it may be hosting the event, it's becoming ever more possible that it won't actually be playing in the tournament.
Only six teams qualify for the post-season tournament, the first of several steps to making it to the College World Series. And as the Cougars came into a weekend series with the Tulane Green Wave, they were in a three-way tie for the sixth and final position with Tulane and UAB. But due to tiebreakers, the Coogs were the seventh team, on the outside looking in at a tourney slot. What they wanted, what they needed, more than anything, was a series win over the Green Wave.
But as the great philosopher Mick Jagger once wrote, "you can't always get what you want." And no matter how much they tried, they just couldn't get what they needed.
They got the series off to a good start, getting a 9-7 win that was powered by second baseman Ryan Still. His three-run home run in the fourth inning, the first of his career, put the Cougars up for good at 6-5, and his ninth-inning diving catch in short right field for the second out helped to preserve the team's tight lead.
"I just got lucky that he hung a curveball right there," Still said of his homer. "I was just trying to get [the ball to the] outfield, and I got enough of it to get it out. So it was good."
But what the Cougars didn't get, again, was a quality outing from their starting pitcher, something that they failed to get, also once again, for the entire weekend. Michael Goodnight failed to get through the fourth inning on Friday. William Kankel got pulled in the midst of a disastrous seventh inning on Saturday, and Eric Brooks didn't make it through five on Sunday.
"We've kind of found our niche there, I guess," coach Rayner Noble said Friday night. "It's really tough watching just go out there and implode, walk guys, and hit guys. There's not much we can do about it. It's just a mindset. The thing is, we just battled, and to overcome all that, and to win a game, that's something."
But that wasn't the case on Saturday or Sunday, and if the Coogs end up not making the tournament, then they can look at the seventh inning on Saturday as perhaps being that final nail in the coffin.
Tulane was ahead 2-1 to start the inning, and the UH starter, Kankel, was pitching his best game of the season. He hit the first Tulane batter of the inning. Then he fielded a sac bunt attempt and threw the ball into right field. Then he walked the next batter to load the bases. Kankel's night was over, but it was too late as Tulane went on to score seven runs on just three hits. Tulane then went on to win 13-2.
"I think what it is, he didn't stay in the strike zone," Noble said of Kankel. "And a costly error there on a bunt. You just can't make those kind of mistakes in a tight ballgame. You can't walk the bases loaded, make an error. You can't do any of that stuff. You're going to run yourself into a loss."
That stuff continued on Sunday. Not only did starter Brooks give up four runs, but the bullpen and defense failed to keep the Cougars in the game as they took the 8-6 loss to drop behind Tulane and into eighth place in the conference standings with a 7-11 record (20-26 for the season) -- the loss dropped them behind Tulane, ECU and UAB who are tied for the final tourney spot with 8-10 conference records.
The game was tied at 4-4 going into the sixth inning, but defensive lapses and wild pitches allowed Tulane to score three runs and go ahead 7-4 as Tulane took advantage of two errors and two wild pitches. he Coogs made a valiant comeback effort in the ninth inning, scoring two runs, but Austin Gracey struck out with two men on and two outs to end the game.
"We just gave the game away, basically," Noble said. "That's how it feels. Our pitchers went out there and did an admirable job. They weren't great, but they did enough. The defensive side of it just let us down. A series like this, when you have poor pitching on one evening and poor defense on the next, you can pretty much rely on the results that we had."
The Cougars have just six regular season conference games remaining this season. And unless some kind of miracle happens, the only way they're going to get to the conference tournament is to start buying some tickets so they can sit in the seats of their home field and watch the other teams play.
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