They were good, but not Rice good.
Expected to be the strength of the team, pitching was anything but during March. Rice's team ERA hovered at or above 4.00 early in the month. The Owls struggled with inconsistency all month and after the USM series Rice star pitchers Cole St. Clair was sitting on a very average 2-2 record, and Ryan Berry not much better at 3-2. On top of that, the Owls had hit only 19 home runs in 25 games heading into the series with Southern Miss. After dropping 2-of-3 to Southern Miss the Owls would beat #13 ranked Texas but lose to Dallas Baptist (which as it turns out is a good team). Something, it seemed, was just slightly out of sync with the Owls. Many thought the team had just gotten worn down from playing too much baseball. Perhaps, but that would take away credit from where it's deserved.
After that disappointing series Rice started to figure things out, and just like they've always seemed to do under the direction of Coach Wayne Graham, the Owls put it all together. They started hitting, they started pitching, they started to play Rice Baseball.
And now, just like every other year since 1996, Rice is conference champion. With Sunday's win and sweep of cross town rival University of Houston, Rice clinched the regular season C-USA title and will be the #1 seed heading into the C-USA Tournament scheduled to begin May 21st in New Orleans. This year's championship is Graham's 13th straight. And let's all say it together, Wayne Graham is Rice Baseball.
Let's look inside the numbers of Rice's impressive championship drive.
First, the record itself says it all – since losing 2 of 3 games to Southern Miss the Owls have lost only 2 games since. The Owls have won 20 of 22 games during the last 6 week run.
The Owls had seemingly taken turns leading at the plate through the USM series. Diego Seastrunk and Aaron Luna have been red hot ever since. Seastrunk earned C-USA Hitter of the Week honors after a walk-off Grand Slam beat UAB in 10 innings. He's been on a tear ever since and is leading the team in batting with a .391 average. Jared Gayhart has probably been the most consistent player at the plate, if not necessarily coming up with the heroics others have. JP Padron has found a groove of his own and is second on the team with a .355 batting average. After struggling with contact lense problems Aaron Luna found his power stroke and started to provide the timely RBI production the Owls were expecting from him this season. Luna has 8 HRs on the season and is second to Seastrunk for the team RBI lead with 48. Adam Zornes has provided even more power with 9 Home Runs of his own. But then there's Rick Hague. You see everybody is producing.
On the mound, Cole St. Clair has run his record to 7-2, winning 5 straight and lowering his ERA to 3.09. Last year's freshmen sensation Ryan Berry is right behind him at 6-3 with a 3.19 ERA. He leads the team in strikeouts with 69. Now, as was expected at the beginning of the season, the Owl staff has rounded into a deep and talented staff. Chris Kelley is 5-1 with a 2.98 ERA, Matt Langwell is 5-0 in spite of a 4.32 ERA, Mike Ojala is 4-0 with a shutdown performance at A&M to his credit, and Matt Evers is 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA. Overall the team ERA is now down to 3.71 after those consistency problems in March.
Though C-USA Champions, the Owls still have to take on Tulane and will travel to New Orleans for a 3 game series beginning Thursday. They'd like nothing more than sweeping the Green Wave as the C-USA Tournament looms just around the corner.
Though it's just May and a lot of baseball is left to play, the way the 2008 Owls are playing right now they've got to be thinking of spending summer vacation in their favorite state - Nebraska - later in the summer…
Congrats to Coach Wayne Graham and the rest of the 2008 C-USA Champion Rice Owls!