Rice Owls pitcher Mike Ojala had been lobbying coach Wayne Graham to let him pitch a complete game for four years. That lobbying had been excessively hard this season, since Ojala wanted to get at least one in his Rice career.
But with his coming off off-season Tommy John surgery, Graham had been doing everything possible to protect Ojala.
Until yesterday afternoon.
Pitching perhaps the most important game of his career, Ojala pitched a complete game as the Owls defeated the University of Louisiana-Lafayette 9-1. Ojala got off to a rough start, giving up a hit in each of the first three innings, but after Graham got into an argument with the home plate argument and third base coach Mike Taylor was ejected, the Owls offense took off, batting around and scoring seven runs in the fourth inning for what turned out to be a relatively easy win.
"It was awesome," Ojala said. "It was a dream come true. It started getting a little emotional at the end, the crowd getting into it, and Coach Graham coming out there. I had to lobby some more to stay out there, I'll tell you that. But it was awesome. It was a great win."
Ojala gave up only five hits and one earned run, while striking out nine and walking only one. The Owls offense was paced by catcher Diego Seastrunk who, once again, took advantage of teams pitching around hitting star Anthony Rendon (who tied the Disch-Falk Field record by hitting three homers in one game in Saturday's win over Rider) to double twice and knock in three runs in the all-important seven-run fourth inning.
Ojala going the nine innings was important because with the victory, the Owls were faced with playing the Texas Longhorns later in the day.
"What we needed, he gave us," Owls pitching coach David Pierce said. "He wanted the ball [Saturday], and he had to understand the format, and the reason why he didn't yesterday is because of what we had to do today."
The format to be understood was rather complicated for Rice because, after losing 1-0 to Louisiana-Lafayette on Friday, the Owls found themselves in the loser's bracket, and instead of gearing up for the expected game with the Longhorns on Saturday night, the Owls found themselves playing Rider on Saturday afternoon -- Rice won 19-1 -- then found themselves having to deal with Louisiana-Lafayette again Sunday afternoon in a game that had to be won in order to fend off elimination and in order to make last night's game against the Longhorns.
But with Ojala already used, with Jared Rogers having thrown eight innings in the Friday loss, and with Taylor Wall having pitched 3.2 innings of perfect ball against Rider (and being saved for a potential contest today against Texas), the Owls pitching staff was left rather thin.
Texas was throwing one of the aces of their staff, Taylor Jungmann, who they had pushed back in order to face Rice. But for Graham, the options were thin, and the pitcher settled upon was Boogie Anagnostou, last seen struggling mightily against Southern Miss in the C-USA title game.
And in perhaps the most important game of his college career, Anagnostou came through, holding UT to just three hits and one run through his first five innings on the mound.
Unfortunately, Jungmann was just as good and Rice wasn't able to generate any type of offense.
And by the time Anagnostou was pulled in the sixth inning after surrendering the game's second run, it was obvious that there was no hope for the Owls.
"He did well. I compliment him," Graham said of Anagnostou. "He made a couple of bad pitches, but he got us to a stage that if I would have said you can have this from Boogie for this long, I'd say, well yes, fine. We'd have a chance to win. He gave us a chance to win."
Through seven innings Jungmann had entirely shut down the potent Rice offense, proving the adage, once again, that good pitching always shuts down good hitting.
Through seven, Rice was lucky to have two hits, and had been able to get only one batter as far as second base, where Rice's Craig Manuel was promptly stranded on a groundout. And after UT's Russell Moldenhauer went deep with a two-run blast in the top of the eighth to make the score 4-0, Rice's chances were finished.
Rice was able to get on the board in the eighth, getting to Jungmann and UT closer Chance Ruffin for one run. But that was it. They could do no more.
"What he was doing will beat anybody," Graham said of Jungmann. "Anybody. He might have won in the big leagues tonight."
A Jungmann/Ojala match-up would have been interesting. That was what the projections were when the regional was announced, but it was not to be. Ojala didn't get his shot against Texas, instead having to shut down Louisiana-Lafayette yesterday afternoon so that Rice could even make last night's game.
But it's hard to argue that things would have ended differently, so good was Jungmann.
So ends the Rice Owls season. They made the NCAA Regionals again, but with Owls baseball, just making the Regionals may be getting to the part where that's no longer good enough.
A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE: The Austin Regional All-Tournament Team consisted of Louisiana-Lafayette pitcher Zach Osborne, UT pitcher Taylor Jungmann, Texas catcher Cameron Rupp, Louisiana-Lafayette first baseman Justin Robichaux, Rider second baseman A.J. Albee, Texas shortstop Brandon Loy, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, Rice outfielders Michael Fuda and Chad Mozingo, UT outfielder Kevin Keyes, and UT DH Russell Moldenhauer. Anthony Rendon was the Most Outstanding Player....Our condolences to the family of Rice's baseball SID, John Sullivan, whose mother died on Saturday afternoon.
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