The seven o'clock Friday and Saturday night games of the Houston College Classic are the prime time games. Those games featuring the best teams in college baseball, and which draw the biggest crowds of the weekend. If UT's at the Classic, it plays in one of the games. Same with Texas A&M, or TCU, or LSU. And Rice, always Rice, because Rice is one of the best college baseball programs in the country and Rice brings its fans to Minute Maid Park for the tournament.
Rice couldn't make it to the Houston College Classic this year so the University of Houston was shuffled into Rice's spot, getting both of the tournament's prime time games. This seemed like a good thing because coming into this season the Cougars were ranked as one of the five best college programs in the country. The squad had reached the NCAA Super Regionals last season, and many experts have picked the Coogs to make the trip to Omaha. So this weekend should've been the Cougars time to shine in front of big crowds before some of the best college baseball teams in the country. Should have been.
The Cougars lost 4-2 to LSU on Friday night, and were demolished 6-0 by Texas A&M on Saturday night. And then the Cougars had to stage a late inning rally last night to defeat Hawaii 8-6 and prevent being swept for the weekend. But that win aside, a team that started the season 5-1 suddenly finds itself at 9-7and hoping that that Hawaii win will force it out of a death spiral featuring losses, dispirited play, injuries, and a head coach threatening to make major lineup changes if the players don't start performing.
"Until our veteran players decide that they're going to start playing, we're going to continue to get beat," head coach Todd Whitting said after Saturday's loss to Texas A&M. "Until that happens, this is going to keep happening to us. We've got guys hurt, but we have plenty of good players on our team, and we have very talented players who aren't playing good right now."
It's no shame losing to LSU (15-1 on the season after going 3-0 this weekend) the 2nd ranked team in the country. And it's no shame losing to A&M (16-0 and 3-0 in the tournament) the 11th ranked team. But there should be shame in the lackadaisical and often sloppy play. The defense at third and short has been error-filled the entire season. And though UH's starting pitching against LSU and A&M was, for the most part good enough to keep the Cougars in both games, both starters too often went into no-think, serving up fat pitches that were hit out of the ballpark for monster home runs.
Friday's starter Andrew Lantrip gave up only three earned runs, but two of those come on a first inning homer mashed by LSU's Chip Hale (who should have been the tournament's MVP after reaching base in eight of 12 plate appearances, hitting a homer, scoring twice, and knocking in five runs). Saturday's starter Jake Lemoine gave up five runs (he surrendered two massive homers to the Aggies). And last night's starter Aaron Garza had absolutely nothing, lasting just 3.2 innings, not that he was helped by multiple defensive miscues.
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"I'm doing a horrible job as a head coach," Whitting said Saturday. "But just, the whole thing, we're just not playing good. Baseball's a funny game. One swing of the bat can turn your season completely around, so we're just going to keep plugging."
And maybe plugging away is the key for the Cougars. Because just maybe the Cougars are suffering from that same issue suffered by many programs striving for excellence: it's one thing to strive for the top, it's an entirely different thing to remain at the top once the top has been reached. Rice and UT suffer bumps in the road each season, Rice in particular usually hits a slump in mid to late-March, but it always pulls out, gets the wins, and finds a way to host a Regional.
But UH hasn't given up, not yet. It could've easily given up last night, down 5-1 early to Hawaii, on the wrong end of some bad umpiring, some bad pitching, and some bad fielding. But the Cougars still found a way to get back in the game late, take the lead, and win it, something the Cougars did so often last season in storming their way into the NCAA Super Regionals.
The Houston College Classic attracted a total of 37,792 for the weekend's slate of games, the best attendance figure since 2007, most of that due to a rabid LSU fan base that packed the park all three days. So the lessons to take away from the weekend are perhaps LSU should be invited back to headline at the Classic, and perhaps the Cougars should be kept away from the primetime games, at least until they've shown they're more equipped to handle the spotlight.