It's just kind of another ho-hum season for Rice Owl baseball fans. The team won the regular season C-USA title, and the team once again won the C-USA conference tournament. For the 19th consecutive season, the 41-17 Owls are taking part in the NCAA postseason. It's all something to which Rice fans have become rather accustomed.
The Owls have struggled during the NCAA postseason the past several seasons, failing to get through the NCAA Regionals three straight times. Those failures are particularly galling the past two seasons when the Owls were hosting the Regionals and had a seemingly easy path to the Super Regionals before Omaha and the College World Series.
The Owls and Rice fans are hoping that changes this season, and it all starts Friday afternoon when the Owls take on the University of San Francisco at 4 p.m. out in Eugene, Oregon. The rest of the teams in the regional include South Dakota State and Oregon, the regional host and one of the highest-ranked teams in the country.
But this is a regional the Owls can win. Oregon's the only national power they'll possibly face. The Owls' rotation is stacked, deeper and better than in years past. The bullpen is solid, featuring one of the best closers in the game. It's a team that's learned how to grind out the wins. And this season, the Owls have played superb baseball on the road, going 17-6 away from Reckling Park.
"I think [this regional is] as good as we could get because we can play the kind of game that the teams we're playing -- we can definitely play their kind of game," Rice head coach Wayne Graham said on Tuesday afternoon. "Oregon bunts well and everything, but we feel like we have a very good third baseman and some good fielding pitchers. We can handle it. San Francisco is a team much like three or four teams we've played this year."
The Owls will be paced by staff ace Austin Kubitza. The junior is 8-4 on the season with a 2.03 ERA, having tossed 93 innings in 15 games with 119 strikeouts. The number two pitcher is Jordan Stephens, 7-4 on the season with a 2.70 ERA, having thrown 103.1 innings this season. The number three guy is John Simms, who went 8-3 with a 2.36 ERA in 99.1 innings with 88 strikeouts. And closing things out is closer Zech Lemond, who posted a 5-1 record with 14 saves and the nation's fourth best ERA of 1.19.
"I would say that that's a strong weekend-type rotation with an absolute premium reliever," Graham said. "Zech is fourth in the country in earned run average, of all pitchers. Those saves along with five wins is extraordinary."
Graham said on Tuesday that his current plan is to keep the rotation going in the same order as it finished the season. That would see Kubitza pitch today, Stephens pitch Saturday and Simms on Sunday. But Graham said the order could change depending on what happens in today's game and who the Owls are set to face on Saturday.
This isn't exactly brilliant analysis, but the key to the weekend for the Owls is today's game with San Francisco. The Owls have lost the opening game of the regionals the past several years, which has thrown them into the loser's bracket, causing them to play early games on Saturday then win two games on Sunday in order to force a Monday game. That's a difficult path for a team to take because it screws around with the rotation, and it's a path the Owls have been unable to take successfully. But if they can get the win Friday, things will be much, much easier.
The Owls are sound defensively, and they're a decent base-running team. The key for the offense will be getting some hits when it counts because the main problem the Owls have had this year is getting multiple runners in scoring position only to come away with zero or one run -- for instance, on Sunday, the Owls three times loaded the bases with one out, but were able to come away with only a grand total of two runs. But with the Rice rotation, if the Owls can find a way to put up three or four runs per game, then they should be able to come away with the win.
And Graham contends the most important thing for the Owls is to go out and have fun. Perhaps implying that the past several Rice teams have been a bit tight.
"You need to focus on the goal because the team that has the most fun wins," he said. "It's not about going somewhere and having a good time; it's about going somewhere and winning, because that team will have the most fun."
So the Road to Omaha begins for the Owls once again today. The school and the fans have become rather accustomed to the NCAA postseason, but making it to Omaha's something the Owls haven't been able to pull off in the past several seasons. They've got a chance to make it happen this year, and it all starts this afternoon in Eugene, Oregon.
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