Rice Series Preview

The first half of the 2013 season couldn't have gone much better for the Houston Cougars. They got off to the best start in the history of the program, their pitching staff was brimming with confidence and their offense full of freshman and first-year players was smashing the ball all over the park.

With Conference USA being as down as it appears to be, it looked for all the world like these Cougars were going to cruise into the postseason with no real issues.

Now, just a couple of weeks later, the Cougars suddenly find themselves in a pivotal stretch of the season.

It's not the record itself that hurts. A 26-11 record is nothing to complain about. It's the way they have arrived at that record that is the problem.

During this stretch of games, UH has dropped midweek games against Lamar and SHSU and lost series to Marshall and Seton Hall, two series I think most of us had banked as series wins coming into those respective weekends.

When you are looking to find your footing in Conference USA, the team you least want to see is Rice. But that's what UH is going to be faced with this coming weekend.

The bad news is that Rice has dominated UH for much of the last decade and the Owls will come into this series ranked in the top 25, as they almost always are. The good news, though, is that this Rice Owls team is not a vintage Rice Owls team. If UH plays the way they did at the start of the season, there is a pretty decent chance that the Cougars come away with a series win.

That's not to say that Rice is devoid of talent. That couldn't be further from the truth.

As they have been so often in the past, the Owls are led by their pitching staff.

As a team, they have a 2.99 ERA and a .234 batting average against.

The top arm is undoubtedly Austin Kubitza. The junior will come into this series with a 5-2 record and 1.36 ERA. He has 80 strikeouts in 59.2 innings and opposing batters are hitting just .187 off of the lanky right-hander.

The Saturday afternoon pitching matchup will be a real treat, as Kubitza will face off against UH ace Austin Pruitt. The only thing that could make it better is if pro wrestling-like stipulations were involved and the rights to the name Austin were on the line.

Sophomore Jordan Stephens doesn't have the buzz or the eye-popping numbers that Kubitza does, but he has been pretty steady. He will come into the weekend with a 4-2 record and a 2.57 ERA. Stephens has done a masterful job of not giving away free passes. In 66.2 innings, he has only walked 15 and hit two. By comparison, Kubitza has walked 34 and hit eight in seven fewer innings.

Veterans John Simms and Chase McDowell are the other Rice pitchers with lots of starting experience this season. Simms, a powerful righty, is 4-3 with a 2.53 ERA. He has punched out 61 in 64 innings. McDowell, a two-way player, is 3-2 with a 4.53 ERA.

In the bullpen, Zech Lemond is the stopper. The sophomore from Waltrip High School has a 1.64 ERA and eight saves on the season. He also gives Wayne Graham a versatile arm, as he has thrown 38.1 innings in 16 appearances. He is certainly not a one-inning closer.

Behind Lemond, the Owls lean on Evan Rutter, Blake Fox and Kevin McCanna. Rutter has a 3.86 ERA in 14 innings, but he is hittable, as hitters have a.314 average against him. Fox is pretty similar, as he has a 4.05 ERA but a .313 batting average against. McCanna is the opposite. His ERA is 4.55, but hitters only have a .170 average against him. For him, the issue has been the walks, as he has walked more than he has struck out.

Clearly there is still top-end talent on this Rice staff, but as you can see here, the bullpen does have a bit of a soft underbelly if you can get there.

Offensively, the emergence of Michael Aquino has been huge for Rice. Aquino was successful as a bit player last season, but this season, he has taken it to a whole new level. All he is doing so far this season is leading the team in average at .350, slugging percentage at .538, home runs with five and RBI with 25. He is also tied for the team lead in triples with three, just for good measure.

The next-most consistent hitter in their order has been veteran catcher Geoff Perrott. He is hitting .315 with a team-leading .412 on-base percentage. That OBP has been greatly helped by the fact that he has been hit by ten pitches this season.

Infielder Shane Hoelscher has been quite good this season, but he missed several weeks earlier this season with an injury. When he has been on the field, he is hitting .321.

Outfielder Keenan Cook and infielders Christian Stringer and Ford Stainback are all somewhat similar offensive players that are having nearly identical seasons. All three are hitting between .270 and .288, all three have a handful of stolen bases and all three have exactly 16 RBI.

A wild-card for Rice is Michael Ratterree. He is one of those players that seems to have been in college for a decade because of how much he played early on in his career. The senior is hitting .260 this season, but he is second on the team with three home runs and he takes a ton of walks. Most importantly for Rice, if he gets hot, he is the type of hitter that can carry an offense for a weekend.

Taking everything into consideration, this has to be the most compelling Rice/UH series since 2006 when Rice was a real national title contender and UH was led by soon-to-be national player of the year Brad Lincoln.

Both teams want this series badly and you could also make a case that both teams need this series. If you have a chance, get out to Cougar Field. It's going to be a lot of fun.

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