The Rice Owls last advanced to Omaha and the College World Series in 2008. They last made the Super Regional in 2009. And after yesterday's 4-1 loss to Sam Houston State, it will be at least another year before the Owls can talk about going to Omaha for the College World Series.
It's often said the most important ingredient for a championship baseball team is pitching. And the Owls had the pitching this weekend -- Austin Kubitza surrendered only 2 hits in 7.1 innings in Saturday's 1-0 loss to Arkansas (the run was unearned) -- but while pitching might be important, at times, the rest of the team has to show up. And the rest of the team showing up proved to be the Owls' undoing this weekend, and for the most part, this season.
The Owls hit .226 in three games over the weekend, but despite that, the team often found itself in the position to score runs. That perhaps was their biggest failing for the weekend as the hitters were only able to get one hit in 27 attempts with a runner on base. And that can be a big problem in games like Saturday's, which they lost 1-0, and yesterday's, when they were down 2-1 as the game went into the eighth inning before losing 4-1.
"I think the problem [yesterday] actually was our hitting more than anything else," Owls coach Wayne Graham said. "We let them get up front, and then they did a great job. You've got to give Sam Houston credit. They made some good plays defensively, and they fought with the bat against some pretty good stuff."
Fought against pretty good stuff Sam Houston State did. As did Arkansas and Prairie View. The Owls' pitching delivered all weekend, with John Simms shutting down Prairie View as Rice got the 3-2 win on Friday night. Austin Kubitza was fantastic on Saturday night as the Owls lost 1-0, and while Matthew Reckling struggled on Sunday, going just four innings, he only gave up two runs.
"With that kind of pitching, we should've been able to make a run at Omaha," Graham said.
In the end, it came down to Rice's inability to hit with runners in scoring position as well as just their inability to hit. And as Rice fails to get out of a regional once again, Graham says the team's hitting woes -- something they dealt with all season -- are something that needs to be addressed in the off-season, and the woes will be addressed by possibly changing the team's overall approach to hitting.
"We've got to get away from chasing pitches that we can't hit," he said. "We've got to lock into the strike zone with pitches we can hit. We weren't there somehow. But we have some ideas on how to get that done, and I think we will."
But perhaps it's not only their approach to hitting that needs to change -- an approach Graham wants to pattern after Arizona which involves hitting more line drives and fewer balls high into the air. Perhaps some other thinking needs to change as well. Thinking like having your best hitters, guys who are actually producing, putting down sacrifice bunts every time a runner gets on base. Which was the case all too often in Saturday's night loss.
The Owls led off the fourth with two hits before going to the attempted sacrifice bunt -- J.T. Chargois ended up striking out when his bunt attempt on strike three went foul (Chargois did miss the sign taking the bunt off at that point). Jeremy Rathjen led off with a single in the seventh, only to have Michael Fuda, who homered on Friday and who led the team in RBI, lay down the sac bunt. That bought up the bottom end of the Rice lineup, which proceeded to ground out and fly out for the final two outs. And in the bottom of the ninth, Chargois led off with a single, only to have Rathjen sacrifice him over.
"As a home club, you've got to play to tie," Graham said after Saturday's 1-0 loss, stressing that with the team's pitching, going for more than a tie would be a reckless move.
But the approach of having a team's best batters give away outs, especially when the hitters below them aren't hitting, doesn't make sense. Because at some point, no matter how good the pitching, a team has to score runs, and scoring runs over this weekend, and over this past season, has been a struggle for the Owls.
"We do the best we can," Graham said yesterday. "It probably is evidence of how difficult it is to get [to the College World Series]. We had some of the best pitching in the country this year. Probably not the best, but we had really good pitching, and with that kind of pitching we should have made a run at Omaha. We just didn't do it."
This is the third year in a row that the Owls won't be making it out of the regionals. And the second year in a row when they were the host team and in good position to host the super regional the next weekend. But for the third year in a row, the Owls couldn't score runs. They had the pitching. But they couldn't hit.
Sometimes things have to change. Maybe it's approaches to hitting. Maybe it's an overall approach to the game. But whatever the change, it's too late for this season.