The regular season's over for the Rice Owls and Houston Cougars baseball teams. Both teams are poised at or near the top of their conferences, riding hot streaks into their respective conference tournaments starting Wednesday. And if things go right this week, both teams are primed to host regionals in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Owls, at 37-17, are the highest ranked collegiate baseball team in the state. The team just won its 19th consecutive conference title while winning 15 of its final 20 games. The Owls, as always, are expected to win the C-USA tournament being played in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the hope that a tournament win will not only make them a regional host, but will make the team a national host, meaning that they'd host a Super Regional the next week before heading off to Omaha and the College World Series.
The Cougars, at 41-14, are just below the Owls in the national rankings. The Cougars finished in third place in the inaugural American Athletic Conference baseball season. The Cougars are considered to be pretty much a lock for the NCAA postseason, but winning the tournament, starting on Wednesday in Clearwater, Florida, might be enough to get UH a host spot for the regionals.
The season was a bit of a struggle for the Owls. They lost two members of the starting rotation for most of conference play (Jordan Stephens to Tommy John surgery and Zech Lemond to arm problems), and key position players battled through injuries so severe that even Lisbeth Salander's half-brother would feel actual pain. Then came the team's annual midseason slump, where nobody could hit, the pitching let down just a touch and the defense had some execution difficulties. But the Owls did what the Owls always do. They overcame the rough patch and started winning games.
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Blake Fox picked up the pitching slack, going 11-0 for the season with a 1.39 ERA in 13 starts. Kevin McCana went 6-3 in 10 starts. The offense was perhaps the best Rice offense since the days of Anthony Rendon. Catcher John Clay Reeves handled the staff with ease while turning into an on-base machine, hitting .337 in 193 at-bats and scoring 30 runs on 65 hits with seven doubles, six homers and 36 RBI on a .477 slugging percentage. First baseman Skyler Ewing had 11 doubles and seven homers while hitting .316 and collecting 42 RBI. Senior outfielder Michael Aquino's bat heated up at the end of the season, ending up with 16 doubles, five homers, 35 RBI and a .464 slugging percentage.
The Cougars, meanwhile, are having their best season since 2002, the year the team went on to win 48 games when combining the regular and postseason. The Cougars may have finished third in the conference, but did manage to defeat a number of ranked powers this season, including Texas, and they were the victors of the Silver Glove series with Rice. Winning the Silver Glove would have been enough for UH not too far in the past, but the mission of this year's Cougars was to be one of the 64 teams playing for the NCAA title.
The Cougar offense was paced over the season by first baseman Casey Grayson, who had 65 hits, 14 doubles, six homers and 41 RBI while hitting .325 and walking 43 times. Outfielder Kyle Survance stole 29 bases while getting 62 hits and 27 RBI. Staff ace Aaron Garza was 7-4 on the season in 14 starts while throwing two complete games and getting 52 strikeouts in 93.1 innings. He was backed by Jake Lemoine, who was 6-5 in 14 starts, and closer Chase Wellbrock, who was 4-0 with 11 saves and a 0.50 era.
It's been awhile since both UH and Rice were on the verge of the NCAAs in baseball. It's a pretty common occurrence for the Owls, but it's something the Cougars haven't experienced in several years. Just making the NCAA Regionals is not enough for the Owls, who are out for a long-delayed return to Omaha, but the Cougars are a talented team primed to make a deep run that can start in Houston if they can win this week. The Astros might offer up a bad baseball product, but UH and Rice are playing outstanding baseball, and if things break right, they'll both be playing postseason baseball in Houston next week.