Arizona readies for test

Arizona will have its toughest test of the season when it faces Rice at home Tuesday and Wednesday.

After its first road series win of year, the Arizona baseball team returns home to face its biggest test of the year when the No. 21 Rice Owls come to Tucson Tuesday night for the first time ever.

The (5-3) Rice Owls are coming into this mid-week series fresh off a series sweep of the USC Trojans this past weekend. In fact Rice is extremely familiar with the Pac-10, as eight of its first 10 games are against teams from the conference including No. 17 Arizona.

The Owls are coached by college baseball legend Wayne Graham, who led Rice to a College World Series championship in 2003 and seven College World Series appearances in 19 years. Under his tenure the Owls have currently made the postseason 15 straight times and have established themselves as consistent power in the college baseball world year in and year out.

2011's version of the Owls is focused around junior third baseman Anthony Rendon. The 2010 College Player of the Year winner batted .385 last season and led the team with 26 homers, 85 RBIs, and 14 stolen bases.

In fact that's more home runs than Arizona's top two power threats combined last year, in Steve Selsky (9) and Joey Rickard (8). Rendon also ranked second in the nation in walks a year ago with 65, just reinforcing how dangerous this guy really is.

The problem is, it's not that easy just to walk Rendon every time because guys like center fielder Jeremy Rathjen and second basemen Michael Ratteree are something a pitcher has to deal with if they do walk him. The two combined to knock in 133 runs for the Owls last year, and quite frankly either one would be the number one offensive threat on most clubs, including Arizona.

There's no doubt the Rice offense is one of the most potent in college baseball, but there is a reason this team is ranked within the top 25 and not the top 10.

The pitching staff for Rice is still a work in progress. As a team the Owls have an ERA of 5.25. Now obviously they've played some tough hitting clubs in USC and Stanford, but the Wildcats are pretty much the definition of a team that knows how to swing the bats. Arizona ranks first in the Pac-10 in extra base hits with 22 on the season so far and they'll be facing a club that has given up 25 extra base hits in eight games.

Three Keys to the Series

1. No Free Passes: The Wildcats have chosen to go with their top two guns in this series, with Kurt Heyer taking the mound Tuesday night and Kyle Simon on Wednesday, as both will be pitching on three days rest. Later in the game their command might start to suffer, but if you're Arizona you absolutely can't walk these Rice hitters, especially with the nation's number one power hitter in the middle of that line up. Coach Andy Lopez must manage Heyer and Simon correctly and go to the bullpen at the right time. Remember, this is an Arizona bullpen that has yet to give up an earned run this season.

2. Play for the first run: Arizona has yet to lose a game this season when it takes a lead at any point in the game. Attack the Owl's pitching early, their starters' combined ERA for this series is 7.71. It's going to make it easier for Heyer and Simon to pitch if they go out there knowing they have a little bit of a cushion.

3. It's a team game: Rice may have the defending National College Player of the Year, but Arizona leads Rice in almost every statistical category this season, except runs (49-48) and strikeouts (72-62). Rendon is only going to be at the plate four to five times a game, so he's likely not going to be able to do it all himself. Last time I checked, Rendon also wasn't pitching for Rice, so there is no reason the Cats can't get their eight runs a game like they've been averaging so far this season.

Probable Starters

Tuesday 3/1 (6:00 p.m. MST) (RHP) Kurt Heyer (1-1) 1.29 ERA vs. (LHP) Tony Cingrani (0-1) 7.20 ERA

Wednesday 3/2 (6:00 p.m. MST) (RHP) Kyle Simon (2-0), 0.57 ERA vs. (RHP) Chase McDowell (0-1) 8.22 ERA

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