Rice: Previewing a weekend of pitching

By Jonathan Yardley - February 16, 2007

I'm still at the office, but I will soon head to Reckling Park for the beginning of a matchup that could serve as a poster child for February start dates: Rice vs. Long Beach State (Texas vs. California, pitching vs. pitching, you get the idea). While the weather feels like neither Texas nor California - the temperature is expected to peak out at 50 degrees today - it is a gorgeous day for outdoor baseball at one of the best collegiate venues in the country.

Since this is my first blog entry, a brief introduction. I am a professional broadcaster and journalist and a 2005 Rice alumnus. I was a broadcaster and beat writer for Rice baseball from 2002-05 and have since broadcasted for the Yakima Bears (2005) and the Alexandria Aces (2006) and now write for the Humble Observer. Don't worry, I'll be impartial in my analysis.

Introductions out of the way, let's get to baseball. I love this weekend's matchup between two teams that go out of their way to schedule very difficult pre-conference opponents. The Dirtbags (not sure if this nickname will ever get old) finished 29-27 last year against a ridiculous schedule that included USC, Cal, a tournament at Rice, Baylor, UT and Wichita State in addition to Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly, UC-Riverside and Cal State Northridge in conference play. This year, LBSU has already beaten USC (with pitching) and Texas (with some major comebacks) in weekend series. This series could be its toughest yet, traveling to play top-10 regular Rice.
The Dirtbags will do it without their scheduled Saturday starter, Manny McElroy. Ace Vance Worley (Friday) and TCU transfer Omar Arif (Sunday) still give the Beach a strong rotation, and head coach David Weathers has gotten good performances so far from junior Andrew Liebel and sophomores Bryan Shaw and David Roberts. Offensively, LBSU has been led by senior outfielder Robert Perry (9-for-22, 1017 OPS) and sophomore shortstop Danny Espinosa (8-for-24, 5 RBI). Long Beach (you can call them by so many name and it still works!) has fond memories of Reckling Park from last year, as the Dirtbags went 2-1 in the tournament, including a 4-1 win over Rice, also in cold temperatures.

On the home side of the field (that's the first-base dugout, if you're scoring at home), the Owls' slow start (3-3) has been well documented. Despite injuries to all-America closer Cole St.Clair and projected starter Bobby Bell, Rice's pitching staff has been solid. The hitting has not been consistent, and Rice is averaging less than four runs per game against Division I competition. Veteran head coach Wayne Graham (you have to love him, as Eric Sorenson will attest) has never been one to panic, and he's not about to start now.
His weekend rotation of righthander Chris Kelley and Ryan Berry and lefthander Joe Savery has combined to allow one earned run in 22.1 innings this year. Graham has used eight other healthy pitchers so far and has several more ready to make their debut, so pitching depth remains a plus.
At the plate, nobody has been very consistent. Rightfielder Chad Lembeck (7-for-21) has had a good start after hitting just .215 last year, and DH/catcher Adam Zornes (4-for-18, .611 slugging) has provided the power. One thing to note - Rice has historically struggled against lefthanded pitching. This year, despite a lineup made up mostly of righthanded hitters, the Owls have struggled while facing four lefthanded starters, including Vanderbilt's David Price and Texas A&M's David Newmann, in six games. I'll keep an eye on this all weekend.
I'll leave you with this stat, which I first researched back in 2004: Rice has won 32 consecutive series at Reckling Park, dating back to 2001. The Owls beat Fullerton here last year with a dramatic Friday-night winner, and this is probably their most difficult home series until May.

Posted by Jonathan Yardley at 12:25 PM on February 16, 2007

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