The season is upon us, and the school with its very own network will begin its run toward Omaha with four non-televised games against a top-15 opponent at Reckling Park.
College baseball is ascendant, but I suppose one can't say it has yet arrived; if you would like to try and watch online, you can do so via OwlVision at the Rice Athletics website, RiceOwls.com. Whether you try your luck with the Rice streaming service or live in Houston and can get to a game live, it's an opportunity to get an early look at the 2015 team against a quality opponent.
It's not entirely clear what the Longhorns' lineup will look like when the series begins tonight at 6:00. In his press conference this week, coach Augie Garrido stated the designated hitter will bat eighth and therefore he'd like it to be someone with some speed.
Specifically, he named junior Taylor Stell and freshman Joe Baker as the two he is looking at -- somewhat surprising information, given the general assumption (including my own) that freshman Michael Cantu would get first crack at the DH slot; instead, it sounds like Cantu may see some time at first this weekend. Garrido also mentioned that center fielder Zane Gurwitz and third baseman Bret Boswell both have minor injuries, and that it's not clear whether or when Gurwitz will play this weekend.
It was also revealed last week that senior second baseman Brooks Marlow will hit in the cleanup spot tonight, which makes a lot of sense even though he's not generally seen as a power hitter. He did hit three home runs last year and is clearly a leader of the team, so I like having him in the middle of the order to anchor the lineup -- at least to start the season. One curious move is that Ben Johnson will apparently hit seventh, whereas one would think he has earned a spot higher up in the order. But no one ever accused Augie Garrido of being conventional.
What About Rice?
What about Rice? The Owls come in ranked anywhere from 13 (D1 Baseball) to 22 (Collegiate Baseball). Clearly fewer people are sure what to think of Rice than they are about Texas, whose ranking varies only from 6th (USA Today, Perfect Game, and NCBWA) to 10th (D1 Baseball, Baseball America).
Here's what we do know: right-hander Blake Fox is 18-0 in his first two seasons at Rice, and will start the first game Saturday against the Longhorns. He's the ace of the staff, but apparently there are some superstition issues surrounding his preference to pitch on Saturdays.
Tonight's game will feature Texas' Parker French against junior righty Kevin McCanna, who went 8-3 with a 2.69 ERA a year ago. He'll be making his 34th college appearance and 18th start, and in 2014 opponents hit .247 against him; he'll provide a good test for a supposed-to-be-improved Longhorn offense, but is some way from unhittable. In the noon game Saturday, Texas' Kacy Clemens will be thrown into the fire as he faces Owl staff ace Fox, who was 12-0 with a strong 1.46 ERA last season.
The nightcap will feature sophomore Josh Sawyer of the Longhorns against true freshman Ricardo Salinas of Rice, whom coach Wayne Graham calls one of his most "prized recruits" with good reason: he posted a 1.88 high school ERA and looked great in fall camp.
The series closes Sunday with Chad Hollingsworth's triumphant return to Reckling, where he became an Instant Texas Hero a year ago in the regional. He'll face junior RHP Austin Orewiler, whose 12 appearances in 2014 were all in relief and who will be seeking a spot on the Owls' weekend rotation.
The position player/hitter most to be feared by those Texas hurlers is senior catcher John Clay Reeves. The native of Monroe, La. calls the pitches for the Rice staff, an honor not usually bestowed on college catchers. He also hit .317 with six homers and 41 RBI in 2014. Interestingly, Reeves is the only Rice position player on the preseason C-USA all-conference team, but is not the only bat in the lineup.
Junior shortstop Leon Byrd returned from an injury last season to play the final fourteen games in center field, but despite the physical issues and position change finished the season on a .377 tear over those 14 starts. And senior second baseman Ford Stainback started all 62 games for Rice last year, 31 at short and 31 at second base. Stainback batted .293 in the conference and .357 in the Owls' eight postseason games (including conference tournament). Those three upperclassmen will try to set the pace for the Rice offense against a talented but young Texas pitching staff.
Much of the attention this weekend will rightfully be on the coaches, as Garrido and Graham could reasonably be said to share the title of "dean of college baseball coaches." They combine for 69 years' experience as D-I head coaches, 2,959 wins, and 154 years on this Earth. Both men have had their programs at a consistently high level for many years -- Rice is such a fixture of the college game that I was genuinely shocked to read that it's been seven years since their last trip to the College World Series.
Despite that drought, Rice is to Conference USA Baseball what Memphis used to be to Conference USA basketball: they play big-time programs the first few weeks of the season, then no one pays any attention and just assumes the Owls have won the C-USA title. For the last 19 years, it's been a safe assumption as the Owls have won the regular season, tournament, or both of either C-USA, the WAC, or the SWC every years since 1996.
Longhorn fans should be happy with a 2-2 split in a road series at a ranked opponent to start the season, and thrilled if Texas manages to win three. The most important thing to watch for is how Texas competes, and whether the older guys can steady the ship and avoid some of the nerves that led to poor play to start the season in California last year.
Getting a good first look at Clemens and Sawyer on the hill in 2015 is also exciting, as is the chance to see Hollingsworth and French back in action after showing their immense value last season.
This is your Friday open thread, and we'll have one up for the Saturday doubleheader and Sunday game as well. Hook 'Em!