Baseball aims focus at home stretch of the regular season
Spring classes have concluded, and the Class of 2013 is set to graduate from Rice this weekend, but at Reckling Park, the college baseball season is just entering its home stretch.
Head Coach Wayne Graham and the Owls are looking to continue their historic success in conference play. In 1996, Graham's fifth season as the head coach at Rice, the underdog Owls won the Southwest Conference Tournament as the sixth seed to earn the program's first-ever conference title. Rice has won a share of the conference championship in every year since then, claiming its dominance across three decades and three different leagues.
But with just two weekends left in the regular season, the Owls (31-15, 11-7) currently sit in third in the Conference USA standings, trailing the University of Southern Mississippi by a game and a half for first place. Because the Owls hold the tiebreaker with the Golden Eagles, they still control their destiny over the final few weekends of the year. With the last two series of the season and the C-USA tournament taking place at Reckling Park this year, will have the home field advantage to finish the year.
Senior Michael Ratterree said the Owls are happy they still have a chance to win the conference title and that he is confident they can get the job done.
"We're excited about having a home stretch," Ratterree said. "We know we've got a tight race in the conference, but we're excited for the opportunity, and we're glad that the conference tournament is here. The focus is to win the league. That was our No. 1 goal coming into the year, and that's what's on our mind right now."
The first hurdle for the Owls is this weekend's visitor, the University of Memphis. The Tigers sit just a half game behind the Owls in the standings and boast a league-leading 2.83 staff ERA.
Junior Austin Kubitza said the first priority down the stretch is not the opponents' arms, but the Owls' own starting pitching.
"If our starting pitchers can figure it out this weekend and our hitters keep hitting the way they are, then we can really make a run," Kubitza said. "Our bullpen has done a pretty good job all year. If our starting pitching can pick it up, I think we'll be all right."
Graham also said he thought the team needed to improve its pitching.
"The consistency of the starting pitching has not been very good," Graham said. "Starting pitching has to get better and [be] more consistent. [Sophomore reliever Zech] Lemond has saved us so many times it's ridiculous."
Outside of the pitching, Graham said there are other areas where he would like to see improvement over the next few weeks.
"Our defense hasn't been that good lately, either," Graham said. "Considering where we were at one time, when I thought we were going to have the best defensive team in the country, we really haven't been. We haven't been bad, but we have to go back to being the defensive team I thought we were."
With Southern Miss playing out-of-conference this weekend, the Owls must take care of business against Memphis and will also be pulling for Tulane University in its series against the University of Central Florida. Although the UCF Knights and the Owls have identical 11-7 records in the league, UCF would win the tiebreaker with its series win over Rice earlier this year. The Owls will set their sights to a home series against Marshall University next weekend, while Southern Miss will be across town for three games against the reeling University of Houston Cougars.
In the long term, Graham said the prospects of hosting a regional in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season are looking dim.
"It's pretty remote," Graham said. "We would have to do something extraordinary."
Kubitza said the team remains steadfast in its focus and approach to the remainder of the schedule.
"We really need to take it one game at a time," Kubitza said. "[Graham] just told us that our fate is in our own hands, which is true. We just need to keep winning conference games and hopefully get that conference championship."
There are six conference games left and the C-USA tournament is almost two weeks away. Graham said there is still plenty of time for the Owls to improve their conference seed and overall positioning for an NCAA tournament bid.
"I think we have a little growth that we're going to have to experience if we're going to make a run," Graham said. "But there's good talent and a pretty solid team, so it's hard to say. There's enough talent there to make a move."
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