There is a remarkable consistency to the Rice Owls baseball team. A clockwork type of precision, almost, when one steps back from the day-to-day and goes to the season-to-season. Take this season, where after winning three of four games this week, the Owls have a record of 26-16. Last year, after 42 games, the Owls were 29-13. And after taking two of the three games from conference rival UTSA over the weekend, the Owls are 14-7 in conference as compared to last year's 15-6 at this time.
Ho-hum. Yawn. Nothing special to see here. Just a remarkably consistent team doing what it does year in and year out, season after season. Winning games. Staying at the top of the conference. Going to the NCAA Regionals. Can the Owls pitch? Yes. Can the Owls hit? Always. It's almost boring, this Rice consistency, this winning time and again. It's something the fan takes for granted, that the Owls will win games and somehow end up as one of the 64 teams playing for the chance to make it to Omaha and advance to the College World Series.
But the winning's not as easy as it seems. There are bumps along the road every season. Injuries, slumps, just plain stupid mistakes. It's how a team adjusts to these moments that separates the pretenders from the contenders. This has become the standard for the Owls, making the adjustments, shutting the lineup or the rotation, moving guys in and out of the closer spot, finding the ways to get the former ace recovering from Tommy John surgery back into the rotation.
Here's the Owls in the microcosm. Two weeks ago Rice went to College Station to take on Texas A&M, one of the best college squads in the country. The Owls led most of the game, then blew the lead and the game. Then Rice headed to Birmingham, Alabama to take on conference foe UAB. It's getting late in the season and every conference game is important, even more so when Rice's pitching falls apart and the Owls lose two of three games. There's the slide in the rankings from 12th in the country to 16th in the country. And there's the drop in the conference standings, from first to third.
Here's more of the Owls in the microcosm. Facing the 25th-ranked Cougars, Rice dominates, getting the 11-0 win. Then comes this weekend, hosting UTSA. The Friday game's rained out. The weather forecast for Saturday's poor, showers predicted for the afternoon, so getting in the doubleheader to make up for Friday's rainout will be difficult. The first game starts at 2:00 as dictated by television. The Owls burst out to the early lead and hang on for the 9-8 win in a game that takes over three hours. Showers are threatening, thunder can be heard, and the wins come alive as the second game begins. But the weather calms, the skies clear, and Rice gets the 8-2 win. Sure the Owls lose 7-1 yesterday, but any week where the team goes 3-1 is a good week. "We definitely took some lumps in UAB, but we've really come back strong thus far, but we still have a little bit of this season left," catcher Hunter Kopycinski said after catching all 18 innings on Saturday. "We want to put ourselves in the best position when the end of the year comes."
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And there's the Owls in the macrocosm: it's all about being in the best position at the end of the year. The Owls play a tough out-of-conference schedule to help with the strength of the schedule and the rankings and to better the odds of hosting a NCAA Regional when the postseason starts. And it's about not living and dying on every pitch or every game. It's about being consistent, knowing that if every player does his job the wins will happen. It's about everybody making a contribution, playing as a team.
"We just have to give ourselves a chance," Kopycinski said. "We kind of hurt ourselves in UAB, but we're coming back strong."
There's 11 games left in the Rice season before the Conference USA postseason tournament. And following that tournament comes the Regionals. Rice is about as good a position as it could hope, and it's given itself that chance Kopycinski wants. The Owls just have to keep doing what it does best. Pitch, hit, field, play consistent baseball, win games.
It's all rather ho-hum. Just another season for Rice being one of the most consistent college baseball squads in the country. So now the question becomes whether this will be year 20 of the Owls winning either the conference title, the conference tourney, or both, and most importantly, whether Rice gets itself in position to host a Regional because there's very little doubt that the Rice will make a Regional. In other words, it's just another season for Rice baseball.