Like Monty Python’s delusional Black Knight, the Rice Owls baseball team is not dead yet. Their epitaphs written by many in early April after a 14-25 start, the Owls have gone on an incredible streak that has put the team just two wins away from making its 23rd consecutive visit to the NCAA Regionals.
The Owls finished the regular season by winning 14 of their final 18 games. They went 14-4 in conference play and climbed to sixth place heading into this week’s conference tournament. The Owls stormed off to an early lead over Florida Atlantic in Wednesday’s first game of the tournament and held on for the 5-3 win over the tournament’s No. 3 seed. The Owls then knocked off No. 2 Old Dominion on Thursday, 4-3. But as good as this streak has been, it means nothing if Rice doesn't get those two additional wins.
And let there be no doubt, the Owls have to win this tournament if the team hopes to make the regionals — that’s what happens when a team finishes the regular season with a losing record of 27-29. But if the Owls can make it, this is a team poised to do some damage.
“If they play right, we can beat anybody,” Rice head coach Wayne Graham told the Houston Press back in April during the team’s losing streak. “We’re behind the eight ball so far. It’s terrible, but if we can get in the tournament, we can beat anybody.”
That seemed a strange thing to ponder at the time. The Owls were generally playing bad baseball. The starting pitchers were struggling to get past the fifth inning and the overtaxed bullpen was being beat up. Several hitters were slumping, and some key players were dealing with injuries. But there were reasons for hope. The team had one of the highest strengths of schedule in baseball, and it had proven that it could be one of the best teams in college baseball.
The biggest weakness was the team’s starting pitching. Graham felt at the time that his pitchers had great stuff but didn’t trust their abilities. Instead of throwing strikes, they were nibbling on the corners. That meant pitchers went deeper into counts, had to throw more pitches than normal and forced Graham to go to the bullpen earlier.
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“We all don’t want [batters] to hit it hard’” Graham said about his starters. “But if you don’t throw strikes on the first pitch, you can’t get any first pitchouts. And first pitchouts get you to the ninth inning as a starter.”
Rice does not play Friday, and it does not find out tomorrow’s opponent until Friday evening. Time to rest in tournaments like this is always a good thing, but then again, the Owls have to hope that the day off does not cause the team to lose the momentum it carried into this tournament. But even to be talking about the Owls being in position to win the conference tournament and to advance to the NCAA Regionals is still something that was unimaginable early last month.
Then there’s this to remember for any team still to face Rice: The Owls finished the season with the 13th-highest strength of schedule in the nation, and finished with the 55th-best RIP in college baseball. It’s a team that has already beaten numerous highly rated schools this season, including winning two of three against the Houston Cougars and taking several games from Stanford.
So maybe all Rice needed was to get healthy and to gain a little confidence. Because when the Owls got hot, the Owls got hot, and right now, Rice is on the brink of returning to the NCAA postseason.