Rice: From the Ashes, Reborn

By - June 15, 2006

Rice’s 2005 season ended one victory short of a trip to Omaha, and with most of the key players returning for the 2006 campaign the team’s goal was clear. The Owls survived injuries to pre-season All-Americans Joe Savery and Josh Rodriguez, racing to their eleventh straight conference championship and earning the right play at home during the NCAA Tournament. They escaped an opening game scare against Prairie View in the regional and a game two loss to Oklahoma in the super regional to advance to their fifth College World Series in the last ten years and their first since winning the national championship in 2003.

It’s ironic that a team with just three losses since the end of March made it to the College World Series by the slimmest of margins. While every other team in Omaha won at least their last two games, Rice had to rebound from a game two defeat at the hands of Oklahoma to punch their ticket to the CWS. Following their previous three losses, the team has run off three long winning streaks (14, 8, and 14 games respectively) – a feat the Owls hope to duplicate over ten days in Nebraska.

Everyone will tell you that Rice is all about pitching, and the staff currently ranks 4th in the NCAA with a 3.16 ERA (trailing just Fullerton among CWS teams) and second in opponents’ batting average with a .230 mark (again, trailing just the Titans). The Owls most dominant statistic is their strikeout total, as their 616 whiffs in 583 2/3 innings is over 10% higher than any other school in the country.

While the pitching is as solid as ever, the hitting has been the catalyst of the Owls tear down the stretch. The lineup is balanced, with Danny Lehmann’s .297 average the lowest among the regulars and five hitters who have driven in at least 50 runs. If this seems familiar, it mirrors the formula Rice rode to the national championship in 2003. That team had eight players who hit over .290 and seven that drove in 40 or more runs. The 2006 club has both discipline and power at the plate, ranking sixth in the nation in on-base percentage (.414) and slugging percentage (.517) while boasting the best combination of the two among CWS participants (.931, fourth in the nation).

Josh Rodriguez (.346-11-64) and Joe Savery (.335-9-63) were expected to be the leaders of the offense, and they haven’t disappointed. The key to the Owls success was the breakout season of shortstop Brian Friday (.365-9-56) as well as the outstanding year by freshman Aaron Luna (.321-16-50). Luna’s home run total is the highest ever by a Rice freshman and ranks in the Top 10 in school history. Tyler Henley’s (.341-7-53) jumpstarts the offense, leading the team with seventy-three runs from the leadoff spot. It might be cliché but it’s appropriate for this team – everyone on the team contributes, and someone different will be the key player each game.

Now you know a little more about the offense, but how about that pitching? Eddie Degerman (13-1, 1.81) is a finalist for the Roger Clemens award, and his 158 strikeouts are six shy of the Rice single season record. The back end of the rotation has struggled in the postseason, but Craig Crow (8-1, 3.28) and Bobby Bell (8-0, 4.12) have been solid contributors throughout the season. After not pitching in the super regional, southpaw Joe Savery (5-1, 2.76) might return to the mound for the Owls in Omaha. The bullpen has been the key to the staff, especially down the stretch. Few teams at any level sport a better lefty/righty combination than Rice – Cole St. Clair (6-2, 1.82, 11 saves) and Bryce Cox (4-1, 4.29, 3 saves) pitched the final 8 1/3 innings on Monday as Rice eliminated Oklahoma from the tournament. Along with lefty Bobby Bramhall (4-2, 2.22) and midweek starter Will McDaniel (7-1, 3.41), head coach Wayne Graham has plenty of options when he picks up the bullpen phone.

The success of the Rice Owls this year was born from the disappointment of falling just short in 2005. The club amassed 55 wins against just 11 losses on their way to the College World Series, and has as good a chance as any team in what should be a wild race to the finishing line. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Owl skipper Wayne Graham: "The quality of college baseball now is amazing. When you look at the teams that didn't get here, you realize how good the teams are that are here. It's very difficult to get to Omaha and you have to pinch yourself when you get here."

Posted by at 08:40 PM on June 15, 2006

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