For just over three and a half hours on Tuesday night, things were as they were supposed to be. The Houston Cougars were dominating the Rice Owls in college baseball. With the Silver Glove on the line, the Cougars were living up to the preseason hype that saw the team ranked among the Top 10 college baseball teams in the county.
The Cougars demolished the Owls 10-0, racking up ten hits, collecting 13 walks and beating up on seven Rice pitchers. Cougar freshman Trey Cumbie tossed eight innings of near perfect baseball, surrendering just five hits and one walk. It was perhaps the best game played by the Cougars this season, and it was perhaps the worst game played this season by Rice.
But here’s the deal. For most of this season, it’s been the Rice Owls that have been one of the best teams in the country, rising to 13th in the baseball rankings while Houston has struggled against a weak schedule, falling out of the rankings. And while Rice, 31-15 on the season, is in the mix for a hosting spot in the NCAA Regionals, UH (28-19) is on the outside, hoping that this win against Rice will help propel it into the postseason.
“We don’t have [a case for the postseason] yet,” Houston head coach Todd Whitting said after the game. “Our RPI is not in position right now. But the thing that I do like is the fact that we have a lot of great RPI games in front of us…You reel off some of those, and you never know, that RPI can get kind of funny this time of year.”
The RPI, a ranking of a team based on its winning percentage and strength of schedule, is perhaps the biggest thing working against the Cougars. The Cougars came into the Rice game with an RPI in the 90s, far below what a non-conference winning team can have to make the postseason. But after the win over Rice, Wednesday’s win over Louisiana-Lafayette (another high RPI team) and games next week against Rice and Tulane (a top 30 RPI team), the Cougars still have slim hopes for the postseason.
While UH’s schedule is working against it, the schedule might not have mattered if the Cougars could have just won more of the games it did play. But the Cougars have more often than not beaten themselves with inconsistent play, and just by not being ready to play for games.
“Whether we win or lose a game has nothing to do with who we play,” Whitting said. "It’s all about how we play. Our competition has very little to do with whether we win or lose games; it’s just if we’re up and ready to play on that night, we can be very good. We’ve shown flashes of it throughout the season. We’ve just got to keep doing it.”
Rice, meanwhile, is in a prime position for postseason success, which is somewhat surprising. This was supposed to be the year that Rice fell apart with an aging coach in Wayne Graham who was supposedly past his prime, the loss of several key players from past teams, and what seemed to be the lack of prime talent flowing into the program.
But of all the coaching jobs by Graham over his years at Rice, this season may perhaps be his best. The Owls don’t score a lot of runs, but the pitching staff, paced by dominating seasons from its weekend starters, junior Jon Duplantier (6-4, 2.20 ERA, 107 strikeouts in 86 innings) and senior Blake Fox (4-6, 2.48 ERA, 77 strikeouts in 83.1 innings), has propelled the team toward an outstanding season while masking the problems with scoring runs.
Rice can partly thank its schedule, packed with out-of-conference teams with strong RPIs, for helping it to rise up in the rankings. But Rice also owes thanks to its fellow teams in Conference USA who made the decision to up the strengths of their out-of-conference schedules to improve the chances of conference teams for making the postseason.
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“That’s one of the priorities in our meetings,” Rice head coach Wayne Graham said Tuesday. “If we want our conference to be rated higher, we’re going to have to schedule better. And we’re going to have to win them. And [the conference] has won a lot of midweek games against some quality opposition this year.”
But there’s still one more game to be played between UH and Rice this season. One last chance for UH to show Rice that it’s the better team, one last chance for the Owls to continue their dominance over the Cougars.
“They’ve always had capability,” Graham said of Houston. “They’ve always had the capability to be a regional team. They just — things go wrong a little bit — a player or two gets hurt, or a pitcher starts pitching badly you’ve been counting on. They have talent.”
The winner of next Tuesday’s game wins the Silver Glove, the award that goes to the victor of the season series between Rice and UH. And while both teams would welcome the award this season, it’s the postseason that’s driving everything right now. It’s UH hoping against hope to make the postseason while Rice does what it normally does this time of year, playing for a high seed and the chance to host the first round of the playoffs.