The Rice Owls Set Aim on Omaha

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John Royal
Holt McNair tosses a pitch during practice
If Rice Owls athletics exceed at any one thing, it's producing an exceptional baseball squad year after year. Things are supposedly no different this year as the Owls are ranked in the top 25 of every one of the seemingly 5,000 college baseball polls. And next week, the Owls will launch another baseball season in which they are head and shoulders the class of Conference USA.

There are questions surrounding this Rice team. Questions about the starting rotation. Questions about who will play first base or start in right field. Can the team make it to Omaha? And the biggest question of all: What is the condition of third baseman Anthony Rendon?

But in the end, those questions probably won't matter. Not as long as Wayne Graham is still running the baseball program. And Graham thinks that if everything comes together for the Owls, a return to Omaha is very possible.

"The pitching is key, and I think we're going to have a good defense," Graham said last week. "I'm going to have to be right about that. Our defense is going to have to be stellar. I think we'll hit enough, and I think we're definitely going to have a good defense, but we'll see. And the pitching has to come through. There's a lot of arms here. So it's just getting the right ones going."

There are some veterans returning to the pitching staff, led by junior Taylor Wall, who went 5-5 with a 4.45 ERA in 15 starts. But while Wall worked as the all-important Friday night starter most of last season, Graham says that Wall's not a lock for that role this season, and that he's still trying to choose his Friday starter and his entire rotation among various pitchers.

"[Wall's] certainly going to be in the mix," Graham said. "But you've got [Austin] Kubitza, you've got [John] Simms, both who are very good freshmen. You've got [sophomore Chase] McDowell, who had a great summer and who's been pitching better than anyone else, really. And then you've got [junior Matthew] Reckling and [senior Tony] Cingrani. So there's a lot of ifs and buts out there."

Graham is hoping for a different approach from his pitchers this season, an approach premised on the newly deadened aluminum bats that are going to be used this season. Graham wants his pitchers attacking the batters this season instead of pitching away from him, but it's an approach he says is easier for him to say than it is for the pitchers to follow.

"What they're talking about with us now is just go after them," Wall said. "Be aggressive. Pitch to contact. Yeah, there are going to be those cheap hits with aluminum bats, but the home runs are going to be but two-thirds probably from what they were last year. He really wants us to be aggressive and pound the strike zone, so that's what we're going to do."

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John Royal
Wayne Graham patrols practice
Sophomore J.T. Chargois appears to be set at first base, though he will also be one of the key pitchers out of the bullpen. Juniors Jeremy Rathjen and Michael Fuda appear to be favorites to round out the outfield, with freshman Shane Hoelscher looking good at shortstop.

Then there's Anthony Rendon, who is healthy and ready to start what is probably his final season of college baseball. But Rendon, currently projected as one of the top draft choices in the summer's MLB draft, is focused on one thing and one thing only. He wants to get the Rice Owls to Omaha.

So there are still a lot of questions for the Rice Owls as they head into the season. The one thing Graham's not worried about is Rendon, neither his health nor the pressure that Rendon's facing from the possible draft. And the attention doesn't seem to be affecting Rendon.

"You can't really run from [the attention]," Rendon said last week. "Even around campus. My family members will talk about it: yeah, I read this and that. And my friends say that, too. You can't run from that. You've got to take it as it is. I don't want to get too ahead of myself. Of course if it happens, it's going to be my lifelong dream, but I'm still here at Rice. I can't even worry about going to the pros right now. I still haven't finished business here. I'm still trying to get to Omaha. We all are."

Yet with all of these questions around the Owls, things are all set for Rice to dominate C-USA once again.

"So far, nobody's hurt and we're getting in good shape," Graham said.

And those, more than anything, are probably the words that no other team in C-USA wants to hear. A healthy Rice team ready to play baseball.

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