Owls Baseball Fighting the Expectations

The expectations for the Rice Owls baseball team are a bit different from the expectations for the rest of Rice Owls sports. Whereas the alumni want the football team to win, they expect the baseball team to win. Whereas they just want the basketball teams to make any tournament, the baseball team's season is a failure if the team doesn't make it to Omaha for the College World Series.

The Owls won two of three games against the visiting UAB Blazers this weekend. They're tied with UCF for first place in conference play with three conference games to play, and they finish the regular season this weekend in Orlando, playing UCF. And with the ranked teams above them also losing games this weekend, the Owls still have the chance to at least host one of the NCAA Baseball Regionals the first weekend of June.

Yet the mood after yesterday's 6-5 12-inning loss to UAB was dour. The talk was about the team's failure to sustain the proper intensity for a three-game series. And the discussion was about the loss hurting the team's chances for national seeding purposes.

"Sometimes with these guys, it shouldn't be, but it's hard for them to [maintain] their intensity levels for three games," head coach Wayne Graham said yesterday. And this fact was troublesome for the simple reason that, from here on out, it's all about maintaining the intensity level.

"They're going to Central Florida, on the road, and you have to win two out of three to win the conference," Graham said. "It's clear-cut now. There's no way to be a co-champion now, no way. You have to win two out of three."

That type of talk is not otherwise generally heard around the Rice sports complex, especially with the major sports. The goal each season is for the football team to win just enough games to make one of the many low-tier bowls dotting the landscape. And it was a refreshing change to see the men's basketball team not only finish with a winning record, but make a postseason tournament, though it wasn't the postseason tournament that really matters.

But for baseball, not going to Central Florida with the conference lead this weekend is a downer. It's a downer because UCF lost a game yesterday, briefly giving the Owls the conference lead. It's a downer because the Owls were ahead for so much of yesterday's game and had the lead going into the ninth inning before letting UAB tie the game.

Yet the Owls baseball team, now 36-14 for the season (15-6 in the conference), is a success. They grabbed a five-run lead on Friday night before the game was suspended due to lightning and rain, then came back out on Saturday afternoon to win that suspended game 12-2. Then they won the regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon game 8-6 (but nearly blowing the win, surrendering four runs in the ninth inning before locking down the victory).

The team does have problems, and problems that don't deal with intensity levels. The starting pitching is letting the team down. They're going the George Costanza route with Saturday starter Austin Kubitza, having him switch things up and pitch in a manner that doesn't feel natural. Friday starter Matthew Reckling has been out of whack for the last several games, and it now appears that John Simms may be the third weekend starter, though he has stamina issues since he's pitched from out of the bullpen most of the season.

The hitting has been inconsistent, and though they put up runs this weekend, the bats can't always be counted on. The most consistent hitter at the moment is freshman shortstop Ford Stainback, who was almost unstoppable this weekend, but the rest of the order is just undependable at the moment.

But those are the expectations with the Owls. The reality is they're one of the nation's top-ranked teams. The reality is that the team is good. And the important thing to remember is that on Saturday, after the rains went away, and before the games started, six members of the baseball team crossed the stage and accepted their diplomas.

In the end, aren't those the important things? The baseball team wins. It wins a lot. It's nationally ranked, nationally accepted, a national power. And when it's all over, no matter what happens, the players actually graduate from college.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal