The Rice Owls (35-20, 17-7 in conference) ended the regular season much in the same fashion as they began. At times over the final two games against UAB, the Owls pitching was un-hittable and the Rice hitters could do no wrong. At other times, the pitching staff couldn't get an out, and the offense couldn't get clutch hits.
But as the weekend ended, with Rice walking off of the field after a 8-5 loss to UAB, the only thing that mattered was that the Owls were the number-one seed in the C-USA tournament, and they were huge favorites to advance to the NCAA Regionals scheduled to start next week.
Yet if the Owls are going to advance, they're going to have to find another reliable starter, and they have to get the bullpen in shape.
The bullpen didn't matter Friday night as senior Mike Ojala pitched the last home game of his college career. Ojala spent most of the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but Friday, he pitched as if the surgery never happened.
He threw 7.2 innings while striking out a career-high 12 batters and issuing only two hits and three walks as he paced Rice to the 9-2 win.
UAB's only runs came after Ojala surrendered a two-run homer in the first inning. He was fantastic after that, and as he exited the mound in the eighth inning, the Rice crowd at Reckling Park gave him a standing ovation.
"Everybody appreciates those, and it feels great when you get those tinglies down the back of your neck," Ojala said of the ovation. "But to tell you the truth, I wanted to go the complete game, and [Rice coach Wayne] Graham didn't want me to. So him taking me out at that moment was picture perfect. If my career at Rice had to end right now -- that was pretty awesome."
Diego Seastrunk put the game out of reach when he hit a three-run homer to right field in the first inning that put Rice up 4-2. Mark Haynes and Tyler Duffey came in from the bullpen to complete the game.
Ojala's been pressuring Graham to let him pitch a complete game. It's an attitude Graham appreciates, but Graham feels Ojala's health and future are more important than a complete game.
For the moment.
"you don't want to jeopardize anything," Graham said Friday night. "It's too long a road back, too hard a road back. I think he's probably projected himself into a decent draft now. I would think. He can pitch. There's a lot of guys out there who can't pitch like that. It's more than just stuff -- and he's obviously got a great curveball -- but he's got good control. He's a three-pitch pitcher. He threw some good changeups tonight. We wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize -- I know he wants to pitch in pro ball, and I think he'll do real well when he goes out."
Senior Day didn't go as well for the Owls as the offense struggled to score and the bullpen struggled to end the game.
Spot starter Boogie Anagnostou pitched 5.1 innings of three-hit ball, surrendering only one run. But with one man on, Graham went to the bullpen and Taylor Wall, the team's supposed ace who has been struggling for the last several weeks of the season. The next batter reached base on an error, then Wall issued a walk to load the bases. And the next batter launched the ball over the right field fence for a grand slam to make the score 4-1 UAB.
Rice tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, then UAB went back up 5-4 in the seventh when J.T. Chargois gave up a solo homer. Rice tied the game at five in the bottom of the seventh, but Abe Gonzales surrendered a three-run homer to make it 8-5.
"It's just guess work," Graham said of his bullpen on Saturday. "You have some good arms out there. Abe [Gonzales] throws good. Duffey and Chargois can go up to 93. You figure Wall's going to do something in postseason. Sometimes it seems like you have to hit the bottom until you start rebounding and start really facing the issues. I've talked to Taylor many times about the fact that you can almost read his demeanor. When he's charging them, he pitches well. When he's tentative, he pitches bad. You can almost read it in his body language. You've got to charge."
What Graham's struggling with now is determining his rotation for the C-USA tournament. The strange format -- two pods, three teams in each pod, the team with the best record in each pod advancing to the title game, and a Wednesday game outside the pod that doesn't really matter -- has Graham leaning, as of Saturday afternoon, toward Ojala and Jared Rogers pitching on Thursday and Friday and Taylor Wall, his least dependable starter, pitching on Wednesday, and possibly in the title game on Saturday.
It's still early. And things could still change. But anything less than the C-USA tournament title for the Owls would be a huge, huge upset.
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