John Royal Owls outfielder Jeremy Rathjen singles in the first inning yesterday.
The Cougars won in convincing fashion on Friday night, defeating the Owls 11-6. And they were up 2-1 with two outs in the ninth inning on Saturday afternoon, apparently headed for the series win when things fell apart as the Owls tied it in the bottom of the ninth, then scored two runs in the bottom of the 10th for the 4-3 win. The Cougars kept it close for awhile on Sunday afternoon before self-destructing and losing 8-2 in a game that wasn't as close as that final score indicated.
"It bugs [the team]. It bugs me. It does all of us," Houston coach Todd Whitting said on Friday night. "The thing I think people get away from is that Rice has a really good team. They've had a long win streak against us, but they're really good. Since [Owls coach Wayne] Graham has been at Rice University, they've had some of the best teams in the country, year in and year out. So it's not like you're losing to an opponent that's not a quality opponent. That's a very, very good team."
And Rice (33-13) is a very, very good baseball team. They were the sixth-ranked team in the country coming into the series, and there's nothing to indicate that they still won't be one of the top-ranked programs in the country after this weekend.
Still, despite the scores, the Owls didn't come close to playing perfect baseball this weekend. They stranded nine runners on Friday, eight on Saturday and 15 on Sunday. Team ace Matthew Reckling was literally a wreck on Friday, not making it through the third inning as he surrendered eight earned runs in 2.1 innings pitched after having given up only 11 runs in 68 innings before that, and Saturday's starter, Austin Kubitza, was only able to make it through three innings before being pulled.
But that's the thing for the Cougars, the problem. Despite playing near perfect baseball on Friday and Saturday, they still managed to lose on Saturday and fell apart on Sunday. Despite seemingly progressive strides made by the team earlier in the season, the Cougars, who are now 16-28-1 on the season, are a team that lacks the talent and the mental acumen of the Owls.
"We want to have the will to win," Owls outfielder Jeremy Rathjen said on Saturday. "We pride ourselves on the fact that we do whatever it takes to win the game, that's the most important thing. In that situation, we've just got to focus and compete and do out best to win."
Rathjen had been slumping coming into the weekend series, but he laid down a key sacrifice bunt in the pivotal ninth inning on Saturday (he said later that he couldn't remember the last time he'd been asked to bunt in a game). His sacrifice fly to centerfield won the game for the Owls in the tenth inning, and his two-run homer in the fourth inning yesterday gave the Owls the 4-2 lead.
The Cougars have problems doing that. They had runners on the bases all weekend (they stranded 28 total), but had problems getting them home. The defense, which has been a problem all season, probably cost them the win on Saturday, and the pitching continues to be a case of the team hoping that someone will step up and take command -- Jordan Lewis pitched eight fabulous innings on Saturday, but he tired in the ninth, and every pitcher had problems getting outs yesterday.
"We seem to have the habit, going back not just the last two years, but the last few years, of [Rice] waiting around for us to lose the game," Whitting said of the games with Rice. "We continue -- I talked to the team about doing three things today, one: not chasing home plate, two: executing pitches, and three: not making mistakes in the field...We literally gave them like three or four runs today not playing smart baseball. Once we can get that under control, we'll be competitive."
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The Owls continue to have the will to win, and they continue playing smart baseball. Their thoughts are looking forward to the College World Series and making it past the regionals this season. The Cougars aren't playing smart baseball, and while they want to win, they don't know how to will the wins.
But don't worry, Cougar fans. The Silver Glove isn't destined to stay at Rice. Both coaches stated yesterday that, even with the Cougars moving to the Big East after the 2013 season, they'll continue to play a series of games with each other each season. That doesn't mean the Cougars will be able to win the Silver Glove back, but at least they'll keep having the chance.