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Rice Baseball 2011: Despite UT backing out, Rice still faces tough foes

By Natalie Clericuzio     2/17/11 6:00pm

For the first time in 11 years, the baseball team and the University of Texas will not tussle on the baseball diamond during the regular season. Agreements were in place to have a "home and home" played, with three games at Reckling Park in 2011 and three games at UT's Disch-Falk Field; however, UT backed out of the agreement in order to play a series against the University of Hawaii. While Owls fans may be disappointed by the omission, this season, it may work to Rice's advantage, as Texas is ranked higher (No. 6 in the nation according to BaseballAmerica.com) than any other squad the No. 18 Owls will face during the regular season.However, that does not mean that Rice's season will be free of challenges. Top 25-ranked foes on Rice's slate include Rice's season-opening opponent, No. 13 Stanford University, No. 16 Baylor University, No. 17 University of California, No. 19 University of Arizona, No. 21 Texas A&M University and No. 25 Tulane University.

Stanford will provide a major challenge to Rice, who will look to avoid another season-opening sweep at the hand of the Cardinal, ? la the first three games of 2010. Wracked by inconsistent pitching, highlighted by a 14-5 loss in the second game, the Owls began 2010 searching for answers from their hurlers. Luckily, in 2011 Rice boasts a pair of brand-spanking new freshmen phenoms in Austin Kubitza and John Simms, who should prevent any similar early-season scoring explosions, especially at the hand of Stanford. However, Stanford's lineup also has its fair share of youth, with eight underclassmen expected to start and five returning from 2010. Additionally, the Cardinal also returns 12 pitchers from last season, which saw Stanford reach the Fullerton NCAA Regional.

Ranked fourth in the Big 12, Baylor may struggle within its conference but will put up a fight against the Owls. Behind the bat, the Bears are a solid, patient team - see sophomore left fielder Logan Vick, who posted 59 walks to 49 strikeouts in 2010 and a .329 batting average on top of that. Junior reliever Brooks Pinckard may be the Bears' biggest asset, having been named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writer's Association's Stopper Watch List after posting 12 saves and a 2.45 earned run average last season. With the departure of 10 lettermen from the '10 squad, however, Baylor's newcomers will have to step up for the Bears to reach their potential.

Hoping to return to its one-time baseball dominance (College World Series Champions, 1957), Cal baseball has the talent to penetrate the postseason in 2011, in what will be their final season as the program is being cut due to the large university budget deficit. Junior RHP Erik Johnson, who boasts a 90-94 miles per hour fastball, will lead the three returning starting pitchers for the Golden Bear. Cal's three All-Pac-10 players (junior catcher Chadd Krist, sophomore LHP Justin Jones and sophomore second baseman Tony Renda) will all contribute to Cal's attempts to move beyond their 2010 fate - a sweep in the Norman NCAA Regional.

With six of Arizona's top seven hitters returning to the field in 2011, the Wildcats have the bats to take them the distance. The duo of starting pitchers sophomore Kurt Heyer (7-4, 3.26 ERA) and junior Kyle Simon (8-6, 4.27 ERA) look to hold their own form on the mound for the Wildcats as well.

Coming off a 7-1 defeat of the Owls in 2010, A&M must like its chances with Rice in 2011 despite A&M's No. 21 ranking. Starting pitching will continue to be a strength for the Aggies this season, led by junior righthander John Stilson, who posted a NCAA-leading .80 ERA in 2010. Sophomore Michael Wacha also brings in a 90-95 MPH fastball.

Rounding out Rice's ranked opponents is conference foe Tulane. The Green Wave team has a lot of untried potential, as the team underperformed in 2010 and also returns a largely youthful team. However, starting pitchers senior Conrad Flynn and junior Robby Broach must draw on their extensive experience and improve in 2010 to carry the team where it hopes to go.

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