Any baseball fan who has attended a Rice baseball game at Reckling Park has seen the sign. It covers the entire side of a building, just behind some bleachers along the right field foul line. The top trumpets Rice’s 2003 National Championship. And under that is the long, long, long list of NCAA Regional appearances and conference championships.
The Owls have made every regional starting with the 1995 season. The conference championship string is almost as impressive. Included in those years are ten Super Regional appearances and seven trips to the College World Series. That’s a 22-year streak of baseball that has also churned out a long streak of Major League Baseball players like Lance Berkman, Anthony Rendon, Bubba Crosby, David Aardsma, Tony Cingrani, Philip Humber and Brock Holt.
But this isn’t a normal year for Rice baseball. A preseason top-25 pick, the Owls season has instead cratered. The team is 13-25 (4-11 conference) for the season. If the season ended today, the Owls would not even be playing in Conference USA’s postseason tournament, and unless Rice can somehow get into that postseason conference tournament (and find a way to win it), there’s just no way that that impressive NCAA regional streak is going to continue.
“I’ve never had a season like this,” Owls coach Wayne Graham said in his office Saturday afternoon.
The Owls had just pulled off a big win, defeating the C-USA’s first-place team, Southern Miss, 11-4. It had been one of those rare days for the Owls — there was only one defensive lapse, the bullpen didn’t collapse, the starter went five innings and hitters made contact, especially with runners on base.
And maybe that’s the biggest reason the Owls are losing games this season at an unprecedented clip for the Wayne Graham era. Seemingly everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong. The starting rotation hasn’t lived up to expectations, with the Friday night ace to start the season relegated to occasional Sunday starts and the original Saturday night start relegated to the bullpen. Then again, the bullpen has struggled mightily as pitchers have battled injuries along with constant use resulting from the poor starting pitching.
Graham sees the pitching problems clearly. His guys have talent, he says. They have great stuff. But they won’t challenge batters. They won’t pound the strike zone. And if you don’t pound the strike zone, you throw more pitches, and if you throw more pitches, you leave the game earlier, and if you leave the game earlier, then the bullpen has to come in earlier.
“We all don’t want [batters] to hit it hard’” Graham says about the pitchers not challenging the strike zone. “But if you don’t throw strikes on the first pitch, you can’t get any first pitch outs. And first pitch outs get you to the ninth inning as a starter.”
The team has also suffered from some of the same ills with which Rice fans have become all too acquainted. The biggest issue has been poor situational hitting, particularly with two outs and runners in scoring position. Several players have gotten off to poor starts, whether as the result of injuries or general slumps, which have pressed other the hitters, and that has at times caused a team-wide problem.
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Graham is insistent on his team’s talent, and notes that Rice has shown it can beat highly ranked teams like Houston and Southern Miss. He also noted that maybe, for once, Rice’s history of stacking up on a strong non-conference schedule at the start of the season has come back to hurt the team, especially since Rice started the season with injuries to key members of the rotation, bullpen and infield. The Owls have played the second-toughest schedule in the nation this year (as of Sunday night) and the team’s non-conference schedule featured teams like UT (No. 27), Stanford (No. 29), UH (No. 47), Texas A&M (No. 58), Dallas Baptist (No. 66) and TCU (No. 67).
“That was a mistake playing that kind of schedule, particularly with that many games crammed together,” Graham said. “That’s what hurt us more with people out.”
Rice’s only chance right now is to make and win the conference tournament. But the Owls are in 11th place in the conference, and only the top eight teams in CUSA make that tournament. Twelve of the team’s final 17 games are against the teams directly in front of them in the conference standings, and if Rice can somehow find a win in those games, then it’s still possible to make that tournament.
“If they play right, we can beat anybody,” Graham says of his team. “We’re behind the eight ball so far. It’s terrible, but if we can get in the tournament, we can beat anybody.”