Closer? Gone for the season. Starting rotation? Torn to pieces. Key position players? Yep, more injuries. If it's true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then the Houston Cougars should be like the Incredible Hulk by now because the team’s been racked by injuries that would probably have destroyed lesser teams — including, in years past, the Houston Cougars.
The Cougars were finding ways to hang in, floundering but staying afloat, when they lost 11-0 to the Rice Owls on April 14, 2015. That dropped the team’s record to 23-14, and what was expected to be a successful season for the team was quickly disappearing behind a rash of injuries, poor play in the field and just a general sense of doom. Yet there was still more than a month left in the season with plenty of time to come together and storm into the postseason.
Head coach Todd Whitting gathered his team in the Reckling Park outfield that night, and he kept them there for a very, very long time. He wasn’t happy, and he wanted to talk to the team, to get into their heads, to get them back on the road to victory. He wanted them to start trusting in what he calls the process, in not making mental mistakes, in not giving up. He wanted them to get out of the funk caused by the injuries, to step up and play new positions. It was time to reset the mental process and return to the attitude that the game was never over, that victory was just the next pitch away.
From that date on, the Cougars have gone 18-3 for an overall record 41-17. They won the American Athletic Conference regular season title. It’s the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. And after a month of sliding down the rankings, the Cougars have started to rise, and along with that rankings rise has come the improvement in RPI, and with that improvement has started the talk of the Cougars hosting an NCAA Regional starting next week.
“The team’s been through quite a bit with injuries and position changes and role changes,” Whitting said as the Cougars practiced on Monday morning prior to departing for Florida and the conference tournament. “It’s not the team that we started out with, but it’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive. The coaches and players have done a great job being resilient and making the adjustments we needed to make and just keep playing.”
The Cougars feel they must win the tournament to get that hosting slot. And so far the team’s won the first two games, including last night’s 7-3 win over USF. The Cougars were paced by starter Andrew Lantrip, who struck out 10 USF batters in seven innings of play. But two more wins are still needed.
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“They know what’s at stake,” Whitting said of his squad as they prepared to leave Monday. “To be honest with you, for us, our postseason started a month ago. We were kind of 30-40 RPI, right in the middle of the pack in our conference. We made the turn after the Rice game. They beat us pretty handedly over there. Talked to the team after that, over the course of the next couple of days, at some point, we had to draw the line in the sand and start playing good baseball down the stretch run. And the team responded.”
The Cougars want the hosting rights to a Regional because it makes the team a one seed for the region and, hopefully, gives the better path to the Super Regional and onto the College World Series. Then there’s the very simple fact that Houston went 25-6 inside the friendly confines of Cougar Field. And the Cougars still feel that the team was wronged in not receiving a Regional last season and that it was wronged when Texas’s bid was selected to host the Super Regional between the two schools last June.
“I think about it,” Lantrip said Monday. “I feel like we should’ve hosted last year, but I feel like we have to take it out of the committee’s hands, and if we win the tournament, I feel like that is very important in making it in their minds to where we have to host.”
The Cougars are off tonight, but at 2-0 in the tournament, the team’s in good shape. Much better shape, probably, than the team was after that disheartening loss to Rice last month. The Cougars know they need to win the next two games, and they’re confident they can get those next two wins, starting tomorrow morning when they next play. And if all goes well, they'll be playing in Houston again come next week.