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Starting Lineup 2013

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Junior Shane Hoelscher, No. 2, attempts to knock one out of the park.

By Ryan Glassman     2/14/13 6:00pm

Under the guidance of the Hall of Fame Head Coach Wayne Graham, fans of the Rice baseball team have been spoiled by success amid the program's rise to national prominence over the last two decades.

The Owls made their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament in 1995, just three years after Graham took over following his successful career at the Junior College level, and have not looked back since. Rice has been to the tournament in each of the last 18 seasons since making its first trip, including a run of five College World Series appearances in seven years from 2002 to 2008 and, of course, the National Championship title in 2003.

But there is little doubt the team's incredible run of postseason success has hit a bit of a speed bump in the past few years. Since the program's inaugural tournament berth in 1995, Graham's teams have not only made the postseason every year, but also have won multiple postseason games in all but three years. The Owls have won their regional opener before losing their next two games in each of these instances, occurring in 1998 and in each of the last two seasons.



The brief streak of NCAA Tournament disappointments, combined with the departure of many key contributors from last season's team, leaves the Owls flying a bit under the radar entering the 2013 season. The losses from last season's team include reigning Conference USA Pitcher of the Year Matthew Reckling, key starters Taylor Wall and Andrew Benak, a pair of the nation's best bullpen arms in Tyler Duffey and J.T. Chargois, and veteran bats Jeremy Rathjen, Michael Fuda, Ryan Lewis and Craig Manuel. Graham and his staff are tasked with replacing 57.7 percent of their run production and 56.1 percent of their innings pitched from a season ago and will call upon a promising class of newcomers and the group of returning players to take increased roles. 

Baseball America ranks the Owls at No. 18 in its preseason poll, recognizing the talent Rice consistently attracts but asking questions about how some of the major losses will be replaced. But even if the prognosticators place the Owls a few spots below where they have been ranked in years past, do not think the expectations around Reckling Park have changed one bit.

"We feel like we're an Omaha-type program, and that's where we want to go," Graham said before the team's first practice of the season Jan. 25. "I think the expectations are always there. We've had a couple of tough breaks the last few years, not only recruiting, but on players that had off years. But I think we've put that behind us, and I think we'll have a quality player at every

position this year."

Starting Pitching

Key Player: Austin Kubitza, junior, RHP: The clear ace of the staff, Kubitza was recently named the C-USA Preseason Pitcher of the Year for the second season in a row. After pitching as well as any freshman in the country in 2011, Kubitza got off to a very slow start in 2012 and was even removed temporarily from the weekend rotation. But after taking time to work on mechanical issues with his delivery, Kubitza returned to form in the second half of the season, finishing with a rotation-leading 2.69 ERA in more than 80 innings pitched. 

"Everyone realizes Austin's potential is unlimited," Graham said of his staff's anchor. "He is close to being as good as anybody out there." 

X-Factor: Jordan Stephens, sophomore, RHP: After a few outstanding starts in his freshman year, most notably throwing six innings of one-hit ball against a top-five Stanford team, Stephens was shut down late last year with a hand injury. Stephens is expected to back up Kubitza in the weekend rotation after going 2-3 with a 4.38 ERA in his first year at Rice. If Stephens can cut down his walks (5.77 per nine innings pitched last year) and emerge as one of the better starters in the league, it will go a long way toward constructing one of the strong starting rotations Rice has become known for under Graham.

Watch Out For: Kevin McCanna, freshman, RHP: Arguably the top freshman in a highly touted class, McCanna has a good chance to enter the weekend rotation from the opening series against Stanford. The Woodlands native was recently touted as the top newcomer in all of C-USA by Baseball America and has a good chance to be the next in the line of dominant starting pitchers at Rice.

Bottom Line: Starting pitching has typically been a strength of Graham's teams, and this year should be no different. As long as Kubitza pitches as well as he has over most of his first two seasons at Rice, the success of this group will depend on whether Stephens can take the next step in his progression as a top-line starter and whether McCanna will immediately pitch at or near his potential. Also look out for Chase McDowell and Zech Lemond to compete among this

group for starts.

Bullpen

Key Player: John Simms, junior, RHP: John Simms came to Rice as one of the most highly touted arms in the nation and has found his niche as a dominant arm out of the bullpen. In 25 appearances last year (21 in relief), Simms went 6-0 with a 2.56 ERA and averaged almost one strikeout per inning pitched. With the departures of Tyler Duffey, Taylor Wall and J.T. Chargois, arguably the best trio of bullpen arms in the nation last year, the onus to replace this level of production will start with Simms.

X-Factor: Holt McNair, senior, LHP: As the only returning southpaw on the staff with experience, McNair will prove a valuable asset out of the bullpen if he can prove he has returned to health after missing almost all of last season. McNair had a 3.48 ERA in 12 appearances in 2011 and will get the chance to be one of Graham's primary bullpen contributors once back at full strength.

Watch Out For: Evan Rutter, sophomore, RHP: Rutter showed flashes of his electric stuff in a few appearances last year and enters this season as one of the go-to guys out of the pen after a strong summer in the highly regarded Cape Cod League. If Jordan Stephens is the player most expected to make the jump in the rotation, Rutter fits that same bill among the contributors out of the bullpen, with an above-average fastball and a spiked curve with a sharp break.

Bottom Line: Considering Rice had one of the best bullpens in the nation last year, it is not going to be easy to replace the talent that was lost through graduation and the draft. But the players mentioned above, as well as guys such as Connor Mason, Tyler Spurlin, and the aforementioned Lemond and McDowell, all flashed potential in fall ball to make the coaches believe the bullpen may be replenished this year with depth, if not the top-line talent from a season ago. Also keep an eye on sophomore Matt Ditman, who emerged as one of the surprises of the fall and is going to get a chance out of the bullpen to show off a lively fastball.

Infield

Key Player: Christian Stringer, senior, 2B: One of the best Junior College additions in all of Division I last season, Stringer led the Owls last year in battering average, on-base percentage and runs scored en route to First Team All C-USA honors last season. Stringer was recently named the Preseason C-USA Player of the Year and will be asked to anchor a lineup that is missing 4-5 regular starters from a season ago. "Christian is a valid top-of-the-line Division I player," Graham said. "He should be one of the best second basemen in the country."

X-Factor: Shane Hoelscher, junior, 3B: Hoelscher is the piece that will most heavily influence the performance of this unit. After a promising freshman year in which he hit .281 and was among the team's leaders in RBIs and slugging percentage, Hoelscher hit just .244 in a frustrating sophomore season. Hoelscher led the team in hitting in the fall and has received praise from his coach as one of the most improved players on the team. If he can bounce back from a down year at the plate and elevate his hitting to where his fielding has already progressed, Hoelscher can take the infield from a strong group to one of the better units in the country.

Watch Out For: Skyler Ewing, sophomore, 1B/DH: Graham has expressed interest in platooning Ewing at first base (most likely with freshman Connor Teykl), but wherever Ewing plays, he has the chance to emerge as the best power hitter on the team if he can make the leap his coaches expect of him. Ewing went 2-11 at the plate last year but was recruited as an elite power hitter with a high ceiling as a weapon in the middle of the lineup. Graham has stated his interest in keeping Ewing's bat in the lineup, as Ewing has the potential to add some pop to a lineup lacking in power hitters.

Bottom Line: Returning three starters in Stringer, Hoelscher and steady sophomore Ford Stainback, whose improved offense has impressed in practice, this unit has the chance to be strong depending on a few factors. Defensively, this should be an outstanding group of players, with Hoelscher's strong glove at the hot corner and Stringer and Stainback returning as one of the better double-play pairings in the country. Offensively, the middle of the infield was strong last year, but the overall success of the group will depend on the corners. If Hoelscher bounces back from his sophomore slump, Ewing displays the power he was recruited for and Teykl has the immediate impact the coaches believe he is capable of, the production of the infield has a very good chance to improve from where it was a year ago.

Outfield

Key Player: Michael Ratterree, senior, RF: A starter from his freshman year, Ratterree enters his final year as the player who likely controls the fortunes of the entire team more than anyone on the roster. 

"The sky's the limit on his potential, and we think we will reach his potential," Graham said. "A big year for [Ratterree] could mean a big year for us." 

At his very best, Ratterree is one of the most feared hitters in the country and is more than capable of carrying a team for long stretches. But Ratterree has been inconsistent at times and is coming off a disappointing junior campaign in which he hit just .233 with six home runs and 32 RBIs. If Ratterree can channel the potential he flashed as a sophomore, when he hit .327 and earned All C-USA honors, he can single-handedly elevate the ceiling of the entire lineup. If the Owls want to reach the postseason and make a run at Omaha, Neb., they will need Ratterree to return to form as an outstanding athlete in the outfield and an elite bat in the order. 

X-Factor: Keenan Cook, junior, LF: After an impressive freshman season in which he made 53 starts and hit almost .300 over the final 30 games of the year, Cook saw a decrease in playing time last season with Ratterree moving to the outfield and Jeremy Rathjen returning from injury. There has never been any doubt about Cook's ability, and now that he will return as a likely starter in the outfield, he has the chance to build upon the strides he made over the last few years and give Rice a solid left-handed bat that can hit anywhere in the order. If Cook continues his hot hitting from the end of last season, a year in which he hit .304 in 27 games, he will be a vital piece in a lineup that, while it may lack power hitting, will be very strong from top to bottom.

Look Out For: Leon Byrd, freshman, CF: If McCanna has been the freshman arm on the roster who impressed the most, then Byrd has been the new player in the lineup who has brought the most excitement. An elite athlete with outstanding speed, Byrd is expected to start in centerfield and hit first or second in the lineup from day one. Byrd is a line-drive switch hitter at the plate who poses a threat as a base stealer once he gets on. His range and arm in the outfield have been extremely impressive to coaches in fall ball and early practices. Ranked as the third-best newcomer in C-USA by Baseball America, Byrd has a chance to provide instant impact both in the lineup and on the field thanks to the physical tools he brings

to the roster.

Bottom Line: If the Owls want to meet their ambitions of ending their minor postseason slump, a lot of production will have to emerge from this group. First and foremost, the team is going to need Ratterree to emerge as a consistent performer in the middle of the lineup. If Ratterree can catch fire for an extended stretch, as he did in the second half of his sophomore season, he has the potential to ignite the entire offense and emerge as one of the best talents in the league. Cook and Byrd will be asked to get on base in front of Ratterree and the power bats, while shoring up the defense with excellent range in the outfield. Michael Aquino, John Williamson and transfer Brian Smith will also be given the opportunity to hit in the lineup and provide great depth for the overall unit. 

Catcher/DH

Graham is expected to employ a platoon behind the plate for much of the season, where senior Geoff Perrott and freshman Hunter Kopycinski are likely to split time. Perrott has proven to be a reliable backstop over the last few years, hitting .289 in 30 appearances (15 starts) while playing behind Craig Manuel last season. He is an extremely reliable defensive catcher who has much experience with the pitching staff and can contribute as a line-drive bat. Kopycinski's potential is also more significant on the defensive side, particularly with his throwing arm and ability to control the running game. Together, the tandem of Perrott and Kopycinski should prove extremely reliable defensively and will add some value in the order by getting on base. The position of designated hitter will likely be a rotation between the extra first baseman (Ewing or Teykl) and junior Aquino. Aquino had a very solid sophomore year in which he led the team off the bench with a .324 average, and he is coming off of a great summer playing in the Texas Collegiate League. Aquino brings experience and speed to the lineup and will share time between the DH and the outfield.

Three series not to miss

Stanford at Rice, Feb. 15-17: Ranked No. 9 by Baseball America, the Cardinal has as much top-level pro talent as any team in the country, led by potential No. 1 pick Mark Appel and outfielder Austin Wilson. Come out Friday night to see Appel versus Kubitza - a matchup of two of the best college arms in the country.

Astros Foundation College Classic at Minute Maid Park, March 1-3: A usually

talented field is absolutely loaded this year. The Owls will take on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (No. 1 in Baseball America), as well as local rivals Texas A&M University and

Baylor University.

Rice at the University of Southern Mississippi, March 22-24: In the first weekend of action in C-USA play this year, the preseason pick to win the league travels to take on the team picked to finish second. The regular season league crown may very well come down to which team comes out on top in this series, as it did when Rice took down Southern Miss in the final weekend two seasons ago.

Final Outlook

Graham has elevated the standard of play at Rice to where the fans expect not just postseason berths, but also trips to the World Series With the usual mix of talented newcomers, experienced returnees and elite arms in the rotation in the bullpen, Rice is again the favorite to repeat as C-USA champion. But the team is flying under the radar nationally and will have to exceed some expectations to meet the goals the coaching staff sets for its team every year. There is no doubt the talent is in place for Rice to make a run at Omaha. But for the team to have success both now and in the postseason, it will need more consistent performance from its core players and immediate contributions from some of the newcomers to the lineup. The talent and the expectations are both set in place. The ultimate success of the 2013 squad will not be measured by how the team plays early on, but rather by how they perform under the pressure of the May and June heat.



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