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Rice Baseball 2012

By Ryan Glassman     2/15/12 6:00pm

"What did Darwin say you have to do to survive?" asked baseball Head Coach Wayne Graham to redshirt junior outfielder Jeremy Rathjen on Friday, Jan. 27, the team's first day of spring practice.

"Adapt," Rathjen answered. Rathjen will look to regain his stature amongst the nation's top collegiate outfielders after tearing his ACL last season and missing the team's final 47 games.

A year ago, Rice's former all-everything third baseman Anthony Rendon (Wiess ‘11) dominated the team's preseason headlines, seeking to lead the Owls to their first College World Series in his tenure at South Main. A series of early-season setbacks got Rice off to a slow 10-9 start and exposed the team's relative inexperience. The talented freshman class exceeded expectations in its members' new starting roles, as the team caught fire with outstanding starting pitching and a balanced lineup, winning 31 of its last 41 games before the NCAA Tournament and clinching the program's 16th straight Conference USA regular season or tournament title. In the end, Rice fell to eventual College World Series participant University of California at Berkeley in the Houston Regional, and Rendon signed with the Washington Nationals over the summer after being selected sixth overall in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.



With the first pitch of the 2012 season coming this afternoon at Reckling Park, how has this year's team adapted to the loss of the 2010 National Player of the Year? What the team has lost in talent from the departures of Rendon, stud closer Tony Cingrani (Martel ‘11), and jack-of-all-trades southpaw Abe Gonzales (Sid ‘11) they have replaced this year with experience, a veteran lineup and perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the entire country.

Entering the season ranked sixth in the Baseball America preseason poll, Rice boasts a greater equilibrium of experience and young talent than the team from last season, resulting in better depth and a balanced roster from top to bottom. The team's propensity for pitching and defense suits the modifications made to the college baseball landscape last season as a result of the BBCOR bats, as teams saw a decrease in offensive production and power at the plate. The fact that the team returns all eight positional starters as well as its top two starting pitchers from a year ago should provide enough encouragement for Owls fans hoping to see the team return to Omaha for the first time since 2008. With an added element of depth that its 2011 version lacked, it's the squad's ability to adapt to the potential in-season swoons that makes this year's team all the more equipped for a postseason run.

Starting Pitching

For the first time in a few years, Rice enters the season with a pair of outstanding starters returning to the front end of the rotation. Sophomore Austin Kubitza was one of the best freshman pitchers in the country last season, and has been recognized as the C-USA Preseason Pitcher of the Year. After leading the conference in strikeouts as a freshman a year ago, Kubitza once again provides Graham with a Friday night starter that can go head-to-head with any starter in the country.

"There is no need to change Austin Kubitza from being our starter,"Graham said of his staff ace. "He has added experience to an improved command of his pitches." Senior Matthew Reckling, arguably Rice's most improved player last year, will follow Kubitza in the rotation as the Saturday starter. After finishing second to Kubitza for the conference lead in strikeouts, Reckling was selected in the 22nd round of the draft but opted to return for a final season. If Reckling's command continues to improve, as it did vastly in the fall season, Rice will boast a pair of pitchers atop the rotation that can match up with any team on the schedule. Although the Sunday spot is less of a certainty, it appears that freshman standout Jordan Stephens will get the first crack at solidifying the job as the final weekend starter. One of Graham's prized recruits in a highly-coveted freshman class, Stephens has exhibited a command of his pitches uncanny for a freshman, a trait that has earned him the trust of his coaches. Also in the mix for a weekend is the veteran senior southpaw Taylor Wall, one of the most experienced pitchers on the staff. Wall is expected to start the season as a midweek starter but has certainly proven over his career at Rice that he has the potential to contribute to the weekend rotation when called upon.

Redshirt freshman Connor Mason and redshirt sophomore Chase McDowell are both coming back from lengthy injuries, but are expected to contribute as they return to full health. Freshmen Zech Lemond and Trevor Simms both flashed strong potential in fall ball, and will be given opportunities to contribute.

Bullpen

Not often do you see a team lose one of the country's top closers to the MLB Draft, and still return the next season with one of the best bullpens in the country. The trio of freshman John Simms, junior J.T. Chargois and junior Tyler Duffey provide Graham with three power arms that will make the loss of Cingrani easy to cope with in 2012. After a solid freshman season both as a starter and reliever, Simms had maybe the best summer of any Owl while playing in the highly competitive Cape Cod League where he did not allow a single earned run in over 24 innings of relief. With a fastball that can get up into the mid-90s, Simms appears poised to make a full-time move to the bullpen where he will be an integral piece of the team's strongest unit. After starting every game last year at first base, Chargois also spent his summer in the Cape Cod League, where his stock as a pitcher skyrocketed after posting superb numbers in relief. A top-50 prospect for the June draft according to Baseball America, Chargois will look to utilize a sinking fastball and sharp curve as he transitions to an increased workload as a pitcher. Duffey, the team's most accomplished reliever, brings an electrifying slider-fastball combination to the pivotal closer role. The MVP of last year's C-USA Tournament, Duffey affords the Owls yet another late-game option in a deeply talented bullpen. Not to be forgotten, junior Tyler Spurlin provides a quality, experienced arm that will see time in middle relief. Junior righty Jeremy Fant was removed from the roster on Wednesday due to the results of an MRI but is simply expected to miss the 2012 season and will return to the mound for Rice in 2013. Veterans junior left-hander Holt McNair and redshirt junior Andrew Benak are likely to see their workloads increase, while newcomers redshirt sophomore Brad Kottman and freshman Ryan McCarthy will look to get involved in the mix. The only weakness in the staff is the lack of left-handed pitchers, with only four southpaws. McNair will be sidelined for the first two weeks to rest his arm after he needed an MRI earlier this week, thus putting more pressure on Wall and Kottman to perform, with freshman John Williamson not expected to contribute significantly on the mound.

Infield

Last year, the Owls entered the season with uncertainty looking on the left side of the infield, as Rendon was limited by injury and playing time at the shortstop position was an open competition between a pair of freshman. After outstanding rookie campaigns in which both players started more than 55 of the team's 63 games, sophomores Shane Hoelscher and Derek Hamilton enter 2012 as one of the country's better young infield duos both defensively and at the plate. One of the team's top returning bats, Hoelscher will man the hot corner after finishing second on the team in RBIs as a freshman. Hoelscher seemed to get more comfortable at the plate as the year progressed last season, and another year of experience should allow him to solidify a spot in the middle of the team's lineup. Hamilton was one of the team's most improved bats in the fall, as he looks to complement a strong approach at the plate with his great glove work up the middle. With an improved plate discipline and patient approach, Hamilton will likely move to the leadoff spot to start the season. On the right side, junior college transfer Christian Stringer will take over at second base as junior Michael Ratterree makes the move to left field. Redshirt junior Ryan Lewis will move from right field to first base after making a smooth transition in the fall and provides an experienced bat with some pop from the left side of the plate. Freshman Skyler Ewing has displayed outstanding power as he continues to develop his defensive skillset, and fellow rookie Ford Stainback has showed the coaches versatility and a patient hitting approach that will earn him playing time, perhaps starting as the designated hitter.

Outfield

Another positional unit packed with experience and depth across the board, the Owls' outfield is led by three upperclassmen with proven track records looking to lead the team to Omaha for the first time in their accomplished careers. Center field will be manned by the ever-reliable redshirt senior Michael Fuda, who has started at least 40 games for Graham in each of his first three seasons at Rice. A superb defensive player with outstanding speed, Fuda will look to bounce back from a 2011 season in which a nagging hamstring injury limited his effectiveness from the plate. In right, Rathjen is back to full health following a torn ACL that cut short a promising 2011 season. Leading the team in RBIs while batting cleanup at the time of the injury, Rathjen provides a dangerous bat in the middle of the order along with exceptional speed and defensive skills in the gaps. Making the switch to the outfield is Ratterree, the team's top returning hitter and a member of Louisville Slugger's Preseason All-America team.

"Mike was solid when he moved to the outfield for the first time in the fall," said Coach Graham of Ratterree, who is expected to be the top run producer in a balanced veteran lineup. "He's still one of the best hitters in college baseball."

Senior Daniel Gonzales-Luna, the ultimate team player, will see time at all three outfield positions and provides strong hitting and speed off the bench. Sophomores Keenan Cook (53 starts in 2011) and Michael Aquino (13 starts) provide outstanding depth after promising freshman seasons, and are certain to be in the mix in multiple outfield positions. McDowell, after a strong fall at the plate, is another name with playing experience that will find his way into the lineup.

Catcher

Back for his final season, you will not find many more reliable all-around catchers in the country than Rice's Craig Manuel. A master of the intangibles, the senior's handling of the pitching staff and approach to specific game situations at the plate make him one of the two or three most irreplaceable players on the entire roster.

"Craig has improved yearly," Graham said of the senior backstop. "I think he's one of the top catchers in Division I, and he may be one of the best situational hitters in college baseball." After Manuel finished in the top 10 in the conference last season in on-base percentage, pinch hitting appearances, sacrifice bunts, and sacrifice flies, its tough to disagree with the praise of his head coach. Backing up Manuel will be junior Geoff Perrott, a capable defensive replacement whose bat continues to improve. Sophomore Andrew Murphy has been identified by coaches as one of the team's hardest workers, and will see opportunities as well at the catcher's position and designated hitter spot.

Outlook

What they lack in star power compared with a year ago, the 2012 Rice baseball team more than makes up for in depth, outstanding veteran pitching and a balanced lineup of returning starters. There are fewer question marks for this team than there were for a team last season that still finished in the top 15 in most polls.

Kubitza and Reckling were two of the very best pitchers in the conference last year, and have both improved their command to lead a starting rotation packed with capable arms. They will give Rice an advantage on the mound in almost every series they play, as can also be said in the later innings when Graham calls on the bullpen. With Simms, Chargois, and Duffey all capable of stifling the opposing bats in relief duty, the Owls are equipped with an arsenal of arms that will make the team susceptible to many of the injuries that the team faced last year.

As the offense is currently constructed, the team's strength is its abundance of patient, experienced hitters that will wear opposing pitchers down and excel late in games. Seniors Manuel, Fuda, and redshirt juniors Lewis and Rathjen are all excellent situational hitters that will hit for strong average and produce a good amount of runs. A\n already solid lineup will develop into a great lineup depending on a few factors from the team's sophomore and junior starters. If Rathjen can return to his pre-injury form as one of the better D-I middle-of-the-order bats, Ratterree can continue to develop into the team's top offensive threat, and the Hoelscher-Hamilton duo picks up with the bat where they left off in the fall, the team will score more than enough runs to make a lengthy postseason trip possible.

With outstanding defense up the middle, a bench littered with starting experience, and a group of freshmen hyped as one of the strongest classes in years, the Owls round out as one of the most complete teams in the NCAA. Ranked between fifth and eighth in the nation in most of the preseason major polls, Rice appears destined to continue their astounding run of C-USA dominance.

With the expectations at customarily high levels, the squad is thinking about not just continuing a streak, but bringing one to an end.

With veteran experience, depth, and pitching that has been compared to the renowned 2003 National Champion staff, the 2012 Rice Owls baseball team has as strong a shot as any to make a trip that no player on the current roster has taken: to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series.



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