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Series at UCF will decide C-USA title, NCAA tournament seed for Owls

By Ryan Glassman     5/22/12 7:00pm

For the 2012 Rice baseball team, the late-season headline reads the same as it has for much of the Wayne Graham era, a testament to the consistency of the program he has built. Anchored by an outstanding pitching staff, the team enters the final week of the season with conference title aspirations and sights on a lengthy postseason run.

The Owls got off to their best start since 1993, winning their first nine games with home sweeps of Florida International University, New Mexico State, and Dallas Baptist. After going 16-7 to open the season, Rice won two of their next three series, at Memphis, against Southern Miss and at Tulane before sweeping Marshall in conference play.

The Owls recently completed an 8-3 homestand that included series wins over East Carolina University, Houston and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as the program's 12th straight Silver Glove Series win after taking three of four regular season games against the rival Cougars.

Entering the season ranked as high as fourth in the preseason polls, the Owls have been carried all year by their depth of quality arms in the rotation and the bullpen.

Within the rotation, no pitcher has been more pivotal in that success than senior Matthew Reckling, who has emerged as the staff ace and one of the favorites for conference pitcher of the year in a breakout season.

Reckling, currently 8-1 with a 2.45 ERA on the season, has improved his command immensely while becoming one of the toughest pitchers to hit in the country. A Mid-Season All-American according to Baseball America, Reckling has been joined in the weekend rotation by sophomore Austin Kubitza, who has overcome some early season struggles and appears well on his way to recapturing his 2011 form.

Andrew Benak has enjoyed an outstanding season, while John Simms has made multiple weekend starts as well.

Perhaps the team's greatest strength has been the bullpen, led for most of the season by Simms, senior Taylor Wall, and juniors JT Chargois and Tyler Duffey.

Each of the four pitchers has made at least 20 appearances in relief, and all boast sub-3.50 ERAs out of the pen for Graham. Chargois, leading the team with eight saves, was named to the Midseason Watch List for the Stopper of the Year Award.

Offensively, junior Christian Stringer has paced the Owls in his first season at the Division 1 level, and currently leads the team with a .365 batting average.

Outfielder Jeremy Rathjen has made a successful return from season-ending knee surgery a year ago, starting every game this season while leading the team in home runs and slugging percentage.

Senior Michael Fuda carried the offense for much of non-conference play, and currently leads the team with 38 RBI on the year. Chargois has also performed admirably in the lineup, joining veterans Michael Ratterree, Ryan Lewis and Craig Manuel as a solid contributor to the everyday lineup.

Freshman Ford Stainback and sophomore Shane Hoelscher have anchored the left side of the infield, contributing to an overall balanced offensive attack.

Currently at 36-14, and 15-6 in the league, Rice enters the final weekend of the season tied for first in the C-USA standings with UCF. For the second straight year, the conference's top two teams will play for the regular season crown in the last series, as the Owls head to Orlando for a three game set beginning on Thursday night.

Rice will then head to Mississippi for the conference tournament, beginning on May 23 and concluding with the championship on May 27.

With a series win this weekend, the Owls will clinch their 17th consecutive conference title under the guidance of the legendary Graham, who will be inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame this summer.

Currently ranked fifth in the Baseball America poll, Rice appears on the edge of earning one of the top 8 national seeds in the NCAA Tournament with one weekend of play remaining in the regular season.

A regular season conference title would solidify the team's case to host a regional, if not a potential super regional, as one of the tournament's top overall seeds. With a plethora of proven arms and a veteran offensive attack, Rice appears poised for postseason success as they look to return to Omaha for the first time since the 2008 season.

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