Cougars Drop Two of Three to Rice

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That old proverb has never been truer than this weekend in the cross-town rivalry series between the Houston Cougars and Rice Owls.

The Cougars have their best team since at least 2008, maybe longer, and harbored hopes of taking home the Silver Glove for the first time in what seems like forever. But it was not to be as Rice won two out of three games to win the series.

Generally speaking, I like to keep this recap to three positives (up) and three negatives (down). With a big series like this, though, a barometer series for UH as a program, there is so much more to say.

To fully recap the weekend that was, let's get to it.

Up:

-          The Cougar offense really took it to Rice starter Jordan Stephens on Friday night. It was clear pretty early on that Stephens did not have great stuff and UH made him pay. If the offense had wasted those early opportunities, Stephen might have had an opportunity to settle down. As it was, the Cougars kept their foot on the gas and had Stephens out of the game after four innings.

-          Chase Wellbrock and the defense did a good job of shutting things down on Friday night after UH jumped out to their lead. In a previous season, I have no doubt that Friday night's game would have been a loss. A defensive player would have thrown a ball ten feet over the first baseman's head or misplayed a fly ball or a reliever would have gotten tight and started walking people. But not this year. Wellbrock came in, settled things down and most importantly, retired Rice 1-2-3 in the ninth on six pitches.

-          Austin Pruitt pitched like he has all season on Saturday. The final stats won't show it since he got a bit worn down in the ninth inning, but he went toe-to-toe with Austin Kubitza. It was also nice just to have a UH pitcher look like he really belonged. Too often, the pitching matchups against Rice have given a vivid illustration of the gap between the two teams. Rice had dazzling starters while UH had grinders and battlers at best and poor pitchers at worst. Thanks in large part to Pruitt, that has started to change.

-          Matt Hernandez pitched pretty well in relief on Sunday after Jake Lemoine and Chase Wellbrock really struggled (more on that later). Lemoine has been pretty inconsistent of late and now has back-to-back really tough starts, so it's nice to know that Hernandez might present a nice alternative.

-          It looks like Jonathan Davis has his swing back in shape. Davis had been slumping a bit since returning from injury, but he went 4-for-10 on the weekend and just had good at-bats in general. With the apparent departure of Kyle Kirk, Davis staying healthy, playing a good third base and getting hot at the plate is a must.

Down:

-          For all the strides UH has made to get better, and I don't think anyone would dispute that they have gotten significantly better, this series didn't look all that different from previous series against Rice. In fact, it was a lot like last season's series. The Cougars won the opening game, lost a tight second game and then weren't all that competitive in losing the final game.

-          The plate discipline wasn't very good on Saturday. The one thing you can nitpick with Kubitza is that he will walk his share of hitters if you let him with that big sweeping slider of his. And yet, UH continued to swing through sliders that ended up two feet off the plate. I realize that if it were that easy, Kubitza wouldn't be so dominant, but I thought the strikeouts on pitches outside the zone were excessive on Saturday. It's also not that Whitting was sending his guys up there hacking either. He mentioned in the in-dugout interview for FSN that his hitters needed to make Kubitza throw strikes, but they just couldn't get that done.

-          After being really good immediately after being inserted into the rotation, Jake Lemoine has had a couple of rough starts in a row. It could be that the book is out on him now or it could be that he has hit the proverbial wall. If I'm in Whitting's shoes, I likely practice patience with the young right-hander, but I also wouldn't blame him if he gave Matt Hernandez or Aaron Garza a shot on Sundays.

-          No one has been happier than I to see Chase Wellbrock play a big role for this team, but I fear that he might be getting over-exposed. His ERA has risen by a couple of full points over the last several weeks and appearances where he gets shelled are becoming more common.

-          In a related note, I fear that the coaching staff has gotten too narrow in their usage of the bullpen. I realize that as the season goes along, you narrow your bullpen rotation to a certain extent, but the balance seemed a little off in this series. Hernandez and Wellbrock got the lion's share of the innings in the series while Logan Piper only pitched to one hitter on Sunday and Ryan Bonnot didn't pitch at all. That's to say nothing of a number of other healthy arms out there. The coaching staff obviously trusts Wellbrock and Hernandez more than anyone else, but they can't be the only relievers they turn to. 

-          The series loss this past weekend is really going to force the Cougars to go on a bit of run to finish the season. The record itself is nice, but thanks to teams like A&M, Baylor and UT being down this season, the computer numbers aren't as high as most would have expected them to be. Most regional projections still have UH in the field, but opinions vary. Aaron Fitt of Baseball America had the Cougars on the bubble but out of the field in his latest Stock Report last week. No one wants to have to sweat out selection Monday, but if they don't pick it up, they might have to.


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