After winning their fourth straight series to start the season last week against UCLA, Fullerton played San Diego State for the second straight Tuesday night, playing in another midweek slugfest but winning this one 9-8 to improve the Titans record to 10-4. Next up on the schedule is one of the most anticipated non-conference series to ever take place at Goodwin Field against the Rice Owls, who entered the season as the consensus #1 team in each of the four major polls.
Rice is 9-4 on the season vs. D1 teams after winning 6-3 at Sam Houston State on Tuesday night and enters the series on a 7 game winning streak. The Owls are a very experienced team after losing only two starting position players (Greg Buchanon, Josh Rodriguez) off of last year's team. As usual, pitching has been a strong suit for Rice with a team ERA of 1.85 despite fielding a less experienced pitching staff than anticipated due to injuries to some key pitchers, notably pre-season All-American Cole St. Clair. Rice opened the season by losing 2 of 3 at the Minute Maid Classic (beating Baylor, losing to Vanderbilt and Texas A&M), winning 2 of 3 at home vs. Long Beach and winning all 3 last weekend in the tournament Rice hosted (Florida Atlantic, Nebraska, Texas A&M-CC).
Rice has struggled offensively this season, hitting .256 as a team and scoring 4 runs or less in 7 of 13 games, although they have started to hit better by scoring 6 or more runs in 5 of their last 7 games. Rice has good power in their lineup, returning six players who hit at least 6 HR's last season, and returns four players who hit over .320 last season. Despite having a lineup with the potential to hit the long ball in most spots in the order, Wayne Graham will also have Rice play little ball when called upon to scratch out a few runs and rely on their pitching to win games. Rice averaged a SB per game and almost a SAC per game last year, although this year's team looks like it is relying more on the long ball to produce runs with 11 SB's and 8 SAC's. The lineup is predominantly right-handed, with two regulars who hit left-handed (Savery, Henley) along with a couple of part-time players. The only new players getting any playing time are the guys at 3B.
C - Rice platoons three catchers - Danny Lehmann (RH, JR), Travis Reagan (RH, SR) and Adam Zornes (RH, Soph) - with each catching once per weekend in the order listed. The first two have been difficult to run on as baserunners are 0-6 attempting to steal against them while against Zornes they are 4-5. At least one their bats are usually found in other positions in the lineup when not catching, such as at DH or 1B. Lehman plays 1B on Sundays when Savery pitches. All three are also solid at the plate as well as behind the plate. Lehmann - '06 - .278-3-31-1 and '07 - .290-0-2-0. Reagan - '06 - .294-0-12-0 and '07 -.267-1-1-0. Zornes - '06 - .302-5-23-1 and '07 - .214-2-3-0.
1B - Joe Savery (LH, JR). Savery is one of the most talented players in the country and is an accomplished hitter and pitcher. Usually hits in the middle of the lineup. Very patient at the plate, walking 50 times in 300 AB's last year, and hits for very good power. Good defensive player. He doesn't DH when he pitches on Sundays. He has gotten off to a slow start, as most of the Rice hitters have. '06 - .335-9-66-7 and '07 - .235-1-8-1.
2B - Aaron Luna (RH, Soph). Luna is one of the top power hitters in the country in the Soph class. Usually hits in the middle of the order. Hard nosed player, will take a HBP for the team (25 last year). Luna isn't a natural 2B and has played all over the diamond in his two years at Rice (2B, 3B, LF). He struggled at 3B last year against Fullerton but improved at 3B as the season went on. Slumped to start the season (6-32) before going 5-11 last weekend. '06 - .322-16-50-4 and '07 - .239-2-9-1.
SS - Brian Friday (RH, JR). One of the team leaders for Rice. Scrapper, hard nosed player, willing to take a HBP for the team (14 last year). Usually hits 2nd. Leading base stealer for Rice last year, also has solid pop in his bat. Another player that has gotten off to a slow start. Good range at SS but will make some errors (16 last year, 3 this year). '06 - 9-57-17 and '07 - .226 -1-3-1.
3B - Diego Seastrunk (Both, FR), J.P. Padron (RH, JR) and Jess Buenger (Both, Soph). All three players are newcomers to the program (Padron is a JC transfer, Buegner transferred from Texas A&M) and all three are in the lineup for their bats (either at 3B or DH) and not necessarily for their gloves, combining to make 8 errors at 3B. This could be an area that Fullerton looks to exploit like the Titans did in the series at Rice last year. Seastrunk has started at 3B the past 4 games. '07 stats for each - Seastrunk - .273-1-5-0, Padron - .278-1-6-1, Buenger - .233-0-6-1.
LF - Jordan Dodson (RH, JR). Dodson is a solid around player with decent pop in his bat, speed and range in the OF. Dodson was hitting .120 for the season before having a big day against Texas A&M-CC last Sunday with 2 HR's and 6 RBI's. '06 - .297-6-41-8 and '07 -.242-2-9-0.
CF - Tyler Henley (LH, JR). Henley is another one of Rice's team leaders. Leadoff hitter, hard nosed player, will take a HBP for the team (20 last year, 8 this year). Good range in CF. '06 - .336-8-54-6 and '07 - .264-1-9-0.
RF - Chad Lembeck (RH, JR). Lembeck was one of the few Rice hitters to struggle last year but this year, when just about everybody has gotten off to a slow start, Lembeck has been one of the better hitters on the team. '06 - .215-6-29-5 and '07 - .283-0-8-2.
DH - A bunch of guys have taken turns at this spot, primarily the C's when they aren't playing behind the plate or the 3B's when they aren't playing there.
Rice is known for outstanding pitching staffs and this year is no exception. Their SP's have pitched well in almost every game except for the Nebraska game last Sat and their bullpen has also put in some excellent work. Put that all together and you have a pitching staff with an ERA of 1.85. Rice has held 9 of 13 opponents to 3 runs or less.
Friday SP - Chris Kelley (RHP, JR, 0-0, 2.04). Kelley is a JC transfer and has pitched well but has been limited to going only 5-6 innings in his three starts, allowing only 5 R's (4 ER's) in those starts. He pitched well against Vanderbilt (5 1/3 IP, 4 H's, 1 R), ok against Long Beach (4 1/3 IP, 7 H's, 2 R's, 1 ER) and well against a solid Florida Atlantic team (6 IP, 2 H's, 2 R).
Sat SP - Ryan Berry (RHP, FR, 2-0, 3.27) OR Ryne Tacker (RHP, SR, 1-0, 0.49). Berry was outstanding against Baylor (6 IP, 3 H's, 0 R's) and very good against Long Beach (7 2/3 IP, 7 H's, 2 R's). Against Nebraska in his third start, the wheels fell off (1 2/3 IP, 7 H's, 5 R's). Graham sent Berry back out to the mound yesterday against Sam Houston State and he was decent but not helped by his defense (3 2/3 IP, 3 H's, 3 R's, 1 ER). Berry will be on a short leash on Sat if he starts. Tacker (RHP, SR, 1-0, 0.49) was a medical redshirt last year but has been dominant in 5 relief appearances this year, pitching 18 1/3 innings and allowing only 1 run on 12 hits with 22 K's, holding opposing batters to a .188 batting average. He has been coming into games in middle relief for the starters on Sats and Suns, going 3-4 innings at a time, including a 5 inning stint against Long Beach.
Sun SP - Joe Savery (LHP, JR, 3-0, 1.20). Savery is talented and one of Rice's best pitchers (along with St. Clair) but is coming back from some arm issues going back to last year so he has been on a limited pitch count to start the season, pitching 4, 4 and 5 innings in his three starts. He has pitched brilliantly, allowing 2 runs total in his three starts and holding hitters to a .220 average. Savery pitches on Sundays due to being on a pitch count and also because he prefers to DH on Fri's and Sat's and focus on pitching on Sun's.
Relievers - Besides Tacker, Bobby Bramhall (LHP, JR, 1-2, 1.93) is the other primary reliever in the bullpen for Rice. He didn't pitch well at the Minute Maid Classic, taking both of the losses by allowing 5 R's in 3 2/3 IP, but has pitched well since then by allowing 1 unearned run in 9 1/3 IP over his last 3 appearances. Rice hasn't really used a set closer but Tacker and Bramhall have kind of functioned in that role by going multiple innings to finish off games. Other relievers in the pen for Rice who have pitched well are transfer Matt Langwell (RHP, Soph, 1-0, 1.88), 14 1/3 IP - 2 midweek starts and 3 relief apps - holding hitters to a .188 average, transfer Scott Lonergan (RHP, SR, 2-0, 0.00), 8 IP - 1 midweek start and 2 relief apps, Kyle Gunderson (RHP, SR, 0-0, 1.59), 5 2/3 IP in 6 relief apps, and JC transfer Jared Gayhart (RHP, Soph, 0-1, 2.08), 4 1/3 IP in 4 relief apps.
Friday's game should be another pitchers duel like they have been the last couple of Fridays for Fullerton. If Roemer doesn't get jumped on early by Rice, Fullerton could have the edge in a close game. Kaplan has pitched well the last three weeks and if that continues, Fullerton could also have the edge in this game with either Berry being a FR and pitching his first game outside of the Houston area or Tacker making his first start of the season.
It must be noted that Fullerton has feasted on Sat and Sun pitching, scoring 7 or more runs in 7 of those 8 games, and the Titans have only been held under five runs twice all season (the last two Fridays). However, Rice easily has the best pitching staff that Fullerton has seen this season and Joe Savery, to say the least, isn't the usual Sunday pitcher that you see in college ball. Rice has struggled offensively against the good weekend starters they have seen, scoring 15 runs off of the six good weekend SP's they have faced - the three at Minute Maid, the Fri and Sun LB SP's and Storey from FAU (Shirek is Nebraska's #4 SP who wouldn't have started except for a suspension to one of Nebraska's other SP's) - before scoring runs off the bullpen in some of those games.
The intangible in this matchup is Rice playing on the road for the first time this year and Fullerton being very tough to beat at Goodwin Field, where the Titans haven't lost a regular season home series since 2004. This series is pretty much a tossup but if Rice continues to struggle at the plate and the Fullerton pitchers continue to step up like they have the past two weekends, Fullerton has a good shot at winning the series.