Category archive: Rice Owls
Are you ready for some baseball? Division I college baseball gets under way at 10 a.m. ET on Friday with the first two games of the Big East-Big Ten Baseball Challenge. If everything goes according to plan, one of the final games of opening weekend will feature Florida International's Garrett Wittels attempting to break Robin Ventura's 58-game hitting streak on ESPNU/ESPN3.com (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET).
While the first pitch of the season has yet to be thrown, it's never too early to start looking forward to June and the first College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. Defending champion South Carolina lost its top two starting pitchers from last year's squad but returns a talented offensive core and has one of the best bullpens in the country. Last year's CWS field included several programs on the upswing. Arizona State was the only team from the 2009 field to return to Omaha in 2010; this year, the Sun Devils could be the only team not to earn a return trip to Nebraska. The talent level isn't down in Tempe, but unless the NCAA sanctions are reversed, ASU is barred from the postseason.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikESPN Preseason All-American Trevor Bauer leads a talented Bruins staff.
The 2011 season will see another change that could have an even bigger effect than the CWS' move three miles up 13th Street. College baseball is changing the specifications for aluminum bats from measuring the ball exit speed (BESR) to the coefficient of restitution (BBCOR). Early indications from fall practices are that power numbers will be down -- a lot. Small ball could become an even bigger part of the college game, which would favor several West Coast teams in a year when that region already appears to be extremely strong. Combined with the flipped orientation from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park -- where the wind is more likely to blow in than out -- pitching and clutch hitting could share the spotlight in late June.
Predicting the field, and especially the teams with the best chances at reaching Omaha, is tricky in mid-February. Using the 2010 preseason coaches' poll, only three of the top eight teams earned national seeds, and just two finished their season at Rosenblatt. Eventual national champion South Carolina and runner-up UCLA both started just outside the Top 25. High early-season expectations are usually enough to get into the tournament, as only East Carolina and Ohio State failed to make the field after appearing in the preseason Top 25.
This is the first time I've attempted to pick the field before the season started. My results at the end of last season were good but not great, but in some cases I favor my bracket to the official NCAA field. I was within one seed on six of the eight national seeds, overseeding Virginia by three spots and picking South Carolina over Georgia Tech for the final top-eight spot (with the way things played out, that looks like a good decision). Of the 34 at-large bids, I had 32 in my final bracket, and the two I omitted topped my "first nine out" section. California was my first team out (and most egregious miss, since it was the No. 2 seed in Norman) but went 0-2; Louisiana-Lafayette was my second team out and went 1-2 in the Austin Regional. The two teams from my bracket that missed regional play were Kentucky and Florida Gulf Coast; Kentucky had a solid RPI but missed the SEC tournament, while FGCU won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title in its first year of tournament eligibility behind ace Chris Sale but fell in the conference tournament. Of the 16 regional sites, I got two exactly right (Atlanta and Norwich) and three of four teams for three more (Auburn, Gainesville, Louisville).
Now that I've dispensed with the caveats, here's my initial projection:
Los Angeles Regional
Last five in: Florida International, Nebraska, Western Carolina, San Diego State, Liberty
First nine out: Kentucky, Elon, NC State, Pittsburgh, Tulane, Oklahoma State, Cal Poly, Southeastern Louisiana, USC
With the exception of Arizona State, which is banned from the postseason, all the teams that played in the final CWS in Rosenblatt earn regional hosting assignments and No. 1 seeds, with the top four national seeds all gunning for a return to Omaha. The other four national seeds all fell 2-1 in super regionals last year, so this bracket is biased toward last year's elite teams. The road from opening day to Selection Monday is bumpy enough that the final field probably won't look like this, but there's a lot of returning talent from last year, and the top squads have reloaded quickly.
Eleven of the 30 conferences with automatic bids send more than one team to a regional. The usual suspects lead the charge, with the SEC (eight), Pac-10 (seven), ACC (six) and Big 12 (six) each in the running to send at least a half-dozen teams to the postseason. The Big East and Sun Belt seem poised to send three teams to a regional for the second straight year, while Conference USA and the Big West should pick up a third bid after only nabbing two last season. For the three conferences slated for two bids, there's one clear leader and one bubble team: Coastal Carolina (Big South), TCU (Mountain West) and College of Charleston (Southern) should be locks to make the field, but Liberty, San Diego State and Western Carolina could be on the wrong side of the bubble if they don't secure automatic bids.
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMIDanny Hultzen and the Cavs are focused on getting to Omaha this season.
Connecticut has the talent to earn a national seed, but the Huskies are in uncharted territory. Last year's great northern hope was Ohio State, and the Buckeyes failed to qualify for the Big Ten tournament after starting the year in the Top 25. UConn needs to overcome a tough early-season trip to California and a bull's-eye on its back during Big East play; that will make the Huskies stronger for postseason play but could cost them some wins and a top spot.
The order of finish for the SEC is always tough to determine, especially considering how quickly a strong recruiting class can pay dividends. Odds are that the eight teams that reach the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., will still be playing in June, but at this point it's hard to count any of the 12 teams out. The top three teams coming into the season are all in the Eastern Division, and it's unlikely that three teams from the same division would all earn national seeds -- much like the early part of the season last year, South Carolina draws the short straw.
The top half of the ACC seems more clear-cut, with Virginia, Florida State and Clemson jockeying for a national seed. Danny Hultzen and six returning hitters give Virginia an early advantage, but the Seminoles and Tigers aren't far behind. At least one of those teams should earn a top-eight spot, with the other two battling for the final spot with the SEC third-place team, the Big 12 second-place team and Connecticut.
The biggest issues for the Pac-10 could be the depth of the conference and Arizona State's postseason ban. The Sun Devils should still pile up wins this year, and every conference win is a lost opportunity for the other Pac-10 schools. The conference won't match its eight bids from last season; seven bids seems most likely, but if ASU sweeps any of the middle-of-the-pack teams, six bids is a possibility.
Three and a half months of action on the field before the NCAA tournament field is announced. Let the games begin!
Jeremy Mills is a researcher for ESPN and is a contributor to ESPN.com's college baseball coverage.
On Saturday, after beating Rice 5-3 in the Baton Rouge Super Regional to advance to Omaha, LSU looked good enough to win it all.
AP Photo/Bill Feig With a win over Rice, LSU advanced to the College World Series in Omaha for the second straight season.
Behind eight innings of gritty pitching by Louis Coleman, a strong defensive effort and a few clutch hits, LSU left no doubt that it was the better team in the best-of-three series. With the win, the Tigers advanced to the College World Series for the second straight season.
This year, though, that's exactly what they were supposed to do.
The Tigers' season started with promise -- there were plenty of veterans on the roster, they had been to the College World Series, they had a new stadium and a No. 1 preseason ranking. On Saturday, the Tigers proved they could live up to the lofty expectations that were once the norm in Alex Box Stadium.
"These kids have been under the microscope all year, and a lot has been expected of them," Mainieri said. "They are so remarkable in their consistency, their poise, their composure and how they've been able to handle these expectations. I know that was one of the big questions before the season began: How would these kids handle the expectations? Well, I think the answer is very clear now."
Things have changed in Baton Rouge.
"Last year, halfway through the season we were just hoping to make the SEC tournament, and we made it to Omaha," said second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, whose leadoff double set the tone for the game. "This year, I think we expected to get to Omaha and I think our goal is to go a lot deeper. We said that from Day 1."
Coaching, pitching and defense has been the key for this year's team, and this best-of-three series was no exception. Third baseman Derek Helenihi drove in two runs and hit a solo home run in the sixth for the final score of the game. Coleman allowed nine hits, struck out five batters and held Rice scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings to preserve the lead. Matty Ott pitched the ninth and struck out Brock Holt with a runner on base for his 16th save.
"I think they're good enough to win it," Rice coach Wayne Graham said of the Tigers' chances at the College World Series. "But when you get those eight teams there, it's hard to tell who is the best. I think they are very competitive with anybody who will be there, particularly with their two great starters and relievers. These three pitchers are probably among the top 20 pitchers in the country. And they've got good left-handed hitters that can go both ways, both left and right. They've got a lot of ingredients."
And now they've got the experience.
Last year, only two people on the roster had been to Omaha before -- Mainieri and assistant coach Javi Sanchez.
"That's not a good thing," Mainieri said. "You want your players to be the ones that are comfortable. Now we've got a lot of guys that have been there already. I just expect us to go there with a lot more comfort and consequently confidence."
Mainieri has been the catalyst for the program's turnaround.
"Skip [Bertman] brought me here to get the program back on line, the great tradition and history," Mainieri said, referring to the longtime LSU coach and former athletic director who hired him in 2006. "They had plans to build this beautiful ballpark, the administration we have now supports us unbelievably. We have so many assets going for us. There's no reason why we shouldn't be one of the premier programs in the country."
Considering LSU is heading to Omaha for the second straight year and the 15th time in the program's history, it still is.
Both he and the Tigers outlasted Eric Berry and Rice in a 5-3 win that advanced LSU to the College World Series for its second straight trip to Omaha and 15th overall. LSU played a complete game and will be tough to beat if it keeps it up.
Thanks to a home run by Rice second baseman Brock Holt and an RBI bunt by Michael Fuda, the score is tied at 2-2 heading into the fifth. Rice is not giving up, despite the fact that its best player is now on crutches in the dugout. Instead, the Owls are turning up the heat and hustling around the bases. Fuda beat out the throw at first on his bunt, and Diego Seastrunk made a triple out of an error in center field. Despite the injury to Rendon, don't count Rice out.
This is a devastating loss for Rice, and it's only the top of the second. Rendon, one of the best players in the country, was 3-for-4 on Friday against LSU with two RBIs and a home run. The true freshman is a standout defensive player, an excellent hitter and a leader and plays beyond his years. He had started all 60 games for the Owls and was batting .390. Jimmy Comerota moved from first to third base to replace him. Rendon won't be coming back, making Rice's 1-0 deficit seem even more troubling now.
Rice Media Relations Rice pitcher Ryan Berry was defensive coordinator for the Owls' powder puff team. He'll need an effective defensive strategy to stifle LSU to stave off elimination.
So here we are for Game 2 in the best-of-three series, and much of Rice's hopes to advance to the College World Series in Omaha hinge on the arm of star right-handed pitcher Ryan Berry. He's got a 7-1 record, an ERA of 2.00 and big-time experience. But you already know that. What you might not have known, though, is that this year, Berry was defensive coordinator for Rice's powder puff team. (Last year he was offensive coordinator.) Rumor has it, he's a mighty good one, too. We'll see how his defensive strategy holds up this afternoon against the LSU bats.
Here's today's starting lineup. (Which reminds me, another note: Rice coach Wayne Graham's lineup card and his signature at the bottom of it is flawless. You'd be hard-pressed to find more legible penmanship. I'm told it's because during Graham's days as a professional baseball player, he worked as a draftsman in the offseason. Guess even Casey Stengel's club didn't pay all that well in those days.)
Starting pitcher: RHP Louis Coleman (12-2)
No. 17 2B R/R DJ LeMahieu
No. 16 LF L/R Ryan Schimpf
No. 34 DH L/L Blake Dean
No. 33 C B/R Micah Gibbs
No. 8 CF R/R Mikie Mahtook
No. 3 RF L/L Jared Mitchell
No. 14 1B R/R Sean Ochinko
No. 5 3B R/R Derek Helenihi
No. 36 SS R/R Austin Nola
Starting pitcher: RHP Ryan Berry (7-1)
No. 7 2B L/R Brock Holt
No. 11 SS R/R Rick Hague
No. 4 RF L/L Chad Mozingo
No. 23 3B R/R Anthony Rendon
No. 5 DH B/R Diego Seastrunk
No. 15 LF R/R Michael Fuda
No. 21 CF R/R Steven Sultzbaugh
No. 10 C L/R Craig Manuel
No. 2 1B R/R Jimmy Comerota
The difference between the two teams was pitching, with LSU's Anthony Ranaudo turning in a solid effort for the Tigers. The sophomore gave up five hits, five runs and one earned run and struck out nine batters in 7 2/3 innings.
The crowd of 9,375 set a record at Alex Box Stadium, and Tigers fans no doubt came alive in the fifth, when LSU's bats caught fire. But the Tigers gave Rice a few gifts with four uncharacteristic errors. Both teams will have to step it up a notch when they meet here again at 5 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN360) on Saturday.