Owls' regional win marks changing of the guard in Texas

HOUSTON -- A changing of the guard took place Sunday night at Reckling Park.

Sure, most baseball pundits probably saw it happening much earlier. But Rice's convincing 7-4 victory over Texas -- the Owls' third straight regional victory -- signaled something much larger than merely another trip to the NCAA super regional round for the Owls.

Rice is now the unquestioned baseball power in Texas. Even with Texas A&M and Houston still alive in the tournament, the Owls' five trips to the College World Series in the past nine years and their 2003 national championship elevates them over all of the other Division I programs in the Lone Star State.

And the fact that it came at the expense of traditional power Texas indicates it was a victory to be savored in much broader terms for Rice, rather than merely an excuse to hang another banner at the immaculate little ballpark tucked among the Space City skyscrapers.

There used to be something magical about Texas baseball, the school that produced players like Roger Clemens, Burt Hooten and Greg Swindell. That fact was borne out by six national championships, 32 appearances in the College World Series and 3,000 collegiate wins.

But those days never seemed further away than Sunday night, as Texas coach Augie Garrido was left to pick up the pieces after another unexpected early departure.

Since winning the national championship in 2005, the Longhorns have failed to advance out of the regionals in three straight seasons. Their record in those tournaments is 5-6.

Rice is 9-0 in the regionals in those same three tourneys.

Sunday's victory has been a testament to the program that coach Wayne Graham has crafted. The Owls pounded out 11 hits and again had an air-tight effort from their bullpen. In three games, the Rice bullpen pitched 12 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run, limiting opponents to three hits. They were even able to overcome a season-worst six errors and still win easily.

We're supposed to be in Omaha and we're not going to be. It's the third time in a row that's happened and it's the reality of it.

-- Augie Garrido

"Well, we hit and pitched OK," Graham said. "That game was a tribute to the intestinal fortitude of our pitching staff. With the kind of defense we played, it was amazing what the pitching staff was able to do."

The Owls put the game away with three runs in the seventh inning, thanks to consecutive run-scoring singles by Jimmy Comerota, Diego Seastrunk and Chad Mozingo.

But the game effectively turned in the previous inning. Texas slugger Kyle Russell opted to try to bunt for a base hit with two runners on and two out against ace reliever Bobby Bell.

Earlier in the game, Russell had blasted his fourth homer in his past three contests and appeared to be in as much of a hitting groove as any player in the tournament. But Bell's wicked changeup made him try to merely hope to reach base than play for the big hit.

It was even worse when Russell meekly topped the ball back to Bell, who threw him out to end the inning.

After that, Texas failed to score as Bell picked through the Longhorns batting order over the final three innings to claim the victory.

"I saw the third baseman back and the pitcher was going to throw me nothing but changeups," said Russell, who broke the school record for career homers earlier in the day. "What do you want me to say? If I had gotten the bunt down successfully, I would have been a hero."

The Longhorns have been a victim of developing across-the-board strength in the Big 12, and the parity that has enveloped the sport. Texas is at a disadvantage in that it can't attract as many junior college players as other strong baseball programs, leaving the Horns to ride through cyclical periods as they rely on recruits who will remain at the school for multiple seasons.

And that has resulted in Garrido again answering critics after another disappointing ending to the season.

The Longhorns were a near-unanimous choice to win the Big 12 before the season, but finished tied for fifth. They won the conference tournament, but fans were harping on a disappointing middle stretch in which they lost 10 of 16 games, capped by a home sweep by Oklahoma State. And another early exit before Omaha will assuredly have the message boards humming for the next few days.

"This is premature for us, way before the expectation level," Garrido said. "We're supposed to be in Omaha and we're not going to be. It's the third time in a row that's happened and it's the reality of it.

"That's a devastating experience for this school and I'm responsible for that. I feel the effects of that. But this team played damn well at the end and damn well at the beginning. In the middle, we got out of whack."

But as much as anything, Sunday's victory bore the stamp of Graham, the wizened 72-year-old coach who arrived at the school with the reputation as a pitching guru from San Jacinto Junior College 17 years ago. He's now beaten Texas three straight times in the NCAA tournament since losing to the Longhorns in the 2002 World Series.

Even as the school dropped out of its traditional power base in the Southwest Conference, Graham has been able to take his program to even bigger heights after the abrupt breakup.

The Owls have made five visits to the College World Series in the past nine seasons, including back-to-back trips in the past two. And it was clear after Sunday's victory that the Owls have bigger aims than merely kicking some sand in the face of their oldest traditional rival.

"We've got a lot of respect for the University of Texas," Comerota said. "Obviously, everybody across the state knows their colors and that logo. Does it mean more to beat them? Maybe. It's always fun playing them, but it's fun playing anybody during this time of year."

Particularly with at least two more games still in front of them this season.

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.