Rice, UH Battle Weather And C-USA Rivals As Tournament Looms

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The weather caused some major havoc to the Houston-area college baseball season this past weekend as both the Houston Cougars and Rice Owls, playing big series with important post-season implications, waited out rain-outs, delays, and bizarre game times as they attempted, and succeeded, in playing all of their games.

The happiest fans in the city probably belong to those at Rice where the Owls won two of three games against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles to clinch the number-one seed in the post-season tournament scheduled for Houston next week. With the wins, the Owls' record for the season is 32-19 and 15-6 in conference. Their closest competitor is Southern Miss, and they're three games out with only three conference games remaining.

Friday's scheduled game was delayed until Saturday afternoon. The Owls were going to attempt to start play at 1 p.m., then moved game time to 3 p.m.before finally starting at 3:45 p.m. And things got off to a bad start as Rice ace Taylor Wall got pounded by Southern Miss. Going into the eighth inning, the Owls were down 11-2 before scoring eight eighth-inning runs with no outs. The Owls lost the game 11-10, but the players said that eighth-inning comeback propelled the team to a win in the second game.

Starting about 45 minutes after the conclusion of the first game, the Owls fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first as Rice pitcher Mike Ojala surrendered a two-run homer. But Ojala settled down and gave up no more runs as the Owls, behind the bat of Anthony Rendon, got the 10-2 win. Rendon said the time waiting for the Saturday games to finally begin was difficult in that the players like dealing with the certainty of a known start time.

"It's really tough," he said. "When you get that mentality that you're going to play at one o'clock, or you're going to play at three, then your mind's like set, well I don't have to get ready until three usually. But when you're waiting and waiting, you get pushed back to three, and so on, we're just in there trying to watch TV and trying to get off our feet, and then we come out here and it's still kind of drizzling, it's just an awful day."

After the Owls went through eight pitchers in the first game, Ojala knew it was important that he get deep into the game and spare his bullpen. And though he only went six, that was enough as bullpen ace Abe Gonzalez was able to close out the final three innings.

"Definitely," Ojala said when asked if he felt the pressure of the game. "You can't have two starters not go -- one go less than less five. You've got to get...it's a little pressure. But it's fun. I didn't want to come out of the game. Coach Graham's like '111 pitches. You've got to come out of the game.' But I was like, 'one more inning, man.' I haven't thrown a complete game at Rice. I've got to start pushing my pitch count, I don't know. But it was fun."

Rice coach Wayne Graham also didn't miss the importance of Ojala's game.  

"If we lose that game we're in deep trouble," he said. "Not that we're out of trouble, but we'd really be in trouble if we lost that game. If we lost that game, it would be possible for Southern Miss to leave here...in first place with the tiebreaker. So it was critical."

The Owls closed out the weekend with a 21-14 win on Sunday, which made it impossible for Southern Miss to finish the season in first place, or with the chance of the tiebreaker over Rice.

The Cougars, who are struggling to make the tournament that they're hosting, needed a big weekend. And despite the weather struggles, they were able to win two of three games from conference foe Marshall, allowing them to stay in the hunt for a tournament spot.

Friday's game was rained out. It was rescheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, then moved to 2 p.m., then finally started around 3:30 p.m. The Cougars won the first game of the doubleheader, but lost the nightcap 5-3. With their season hanging on the line, freshman Eric Brooks took the ball and pitched the finest game of his career in a Sunday-morning finale that began at 10 a.m. due to weather concerns.

Brooks shut down the Marshall offense, going 7.1 innings while getting a career-high six strikeouts and giving up only one run as the Cougars got the 10-1 win. He got all of the offensive support he needed after the Cougars scored four runs in the second inning.

"That was a big confidence booster," Brooks said about that second inning. "Anytime your team can score -- it feels good to be able to go out there and pitch with the lead because then you can go out there and you can pitch to contact instead of having to try pitch around contact."

Cougar coach Rayner Noble knows the team needed a miracle, and he realizes the team struggled this weekend to get some much-needed wins.

"We fought, we scrapped, and we battled," he said. "We're still alive. We've got to just keep pushing and doing things right. We've got to get solid pitching. I think what we missed this weekend was the big hit. Hopefully we can put that together as we go into Tuesday and the weekend."

With the wins, the Cougars record improved to 22-28 on the season and 9-12 in conference. Their post-season chances are still alive, but the team needs a miracle this weekend. A miracle that includes sweeping East Carolina and hoping for a whole bunch of other teams to lose.

The Owls and Cougars face each tonight, at Cougar Field, in a non-conference match-up, at 6:30 p.m. Ultimately, the game means nothing. But ultimately, neither team wants to lose heading into the final weekend.

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