CWS Championship Preview: Rice

The final preview of the year takes a look at the Rice Owls, the #1 team in the country and Stanford's opponent in the National Championship Series beginning Saturday. The Owls have advanced to the championship series on the backs of their All-American pitching staff, led by first teamers Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend. Read on for the preview of the National Championship Series.

#3 Stanford (50-16) vs. #1 Rice (56-11)

Saturday: 4:00 PM
Sunday: 11:30 AM
Monday: 4:00 PM
* All start times are Pacific and will be played at Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha, NE.

After five grueling games at the College World Series, the Stanford Cardinal have advanced to the National Championship Series (NCS), playing for the title for the third time in four years.  After losing Game 2 to Cal State Fullerton, the Cardinal came through the losers' bracket, defeating South Carolina, then Fullerton twice to have a shot at Rice, who swept through Bracket Two on route to the NCS.

Ranked in the top 3 for the entire season by Baseball America, the Rice Owls are the champions of the WAC and have gone undefeated at the College World Series.  After losing to Alabama on the 16th of February, Rice put together a 30-game winning streak, going undefeated in March and not losing until April 7th against Lamar.  While the Owls played in a below-average conference in the WAC (they have won the conference in seven straight seasons), they utterly dominated conference play with a 25-5 record, and put together an amazing 35-4 mark at their home Reckling Park.

The Owls are coached by Wayne Graham.  Graham took over a program in 1992 that had never even advanced to the NCAA Tournament.  Since then, he has led the Owls to four College World Series appearances and seven consecutive WAC titles.  The Owls did not win a game in Omaha in 1997 or 2002, losing two heartbreakers in last year's CWS, including one to Notre Dame in the bottom of the ninth inning.  However, this year Rice has swept through Bracket Two, defeating SW Missouri St. and Texas twice, advancing to the National Championship for the first time.

The Owls are a team based on pitching and defense, with an offense that has not produced much in the College World Series (with the exception of one inning against Texas on Monday).  Clearly, the centerpiece of Rice's team is their starting pitching and their closer.  Both Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend are hard throwing righties with ERAs under two.  Niemann was John Manuel's runner up for College Baseball Player of the Year (Rickie Weeks won the honor), but Manuel said that one of the reasons that he did not win is because he was not convinced that he was even the best pitcher on his team, because of Townsend!  With a combined 28-1 record this season, the Niemann-Townsend combo is as or more formidable than the Alvarez-Weaver combo at Long Beach St.

As if that were not enough the Owl's #3 starter, Philip Humber, is 10-3 this year with a 3.40 ERA and 134 Ks in 119 innings!  Not only that, but Rice's closer David Aardsma was a first round draft pick (San Francisco) who has 12 saves on the year.  The Owls sport one of College Baseball's best defenses, as they come into the NCS with a .980 fielding percentage, and that number has gone down a little as of late. 

Offensively, the Owls are a decent hitting team with only one bona fide superstar.  Vincent Sinisi was a second round draft pick only because of his affiliation with Scott Boras, but the Owl's 1B has had a good year, hitting .344 with 10 HR and 59 RBI.  However, he has struggled in Omaha, going just 1-11 with a HR.  Chris Kolkhorst is the sparkplug at the top of the lineup, as the LF has a .477 OBP, courtesy of his 39 BB and his 25 HBPs!  The offense has produced just enough in Omaha, but clearly this is a team led by their pitching staff.

In the NCAA Tournament, Rice swept through their regional, struggling with first round opponent McNeese St. before winning in 10 innings.  The Owls then swept a pair of games with Wichita St., blowing out the Shockers in the first game while winning Sunday 5-2.  In the Super Regional, Rice drew local rival Houston from Conference USA, and lost Game One 5-2.  But they battled back, winning the next two to advance to their fourth CWS.  Here in Omaha, Rice drew first timer SW Missouri St., as Jeff Niemann gave up just a bunt single in the first eight innings, and Rice won 4-2.  The Owls then got revenge for last year, defeating the Texas Longhorns in a pair of games, as they beat All-American closer Huston Street on Wednesday on an unearned run in the ninth inning.

As far as matching up with the Cardinal, the Owls are set up perfectly in terms of pitching: they have Niemann, Townsend, and most likely Humber and/or their fourth starter Josh Baker ready for the three-game NCS.  The Owls are a great team, and set up for the Cardinal much like Long Beach St.  The only difference for Stanford is that the Owls are all hard throwers, and Stanford cannot counter with John Hudgins until Sunday at the absolute earliest, most likely Monday if at all.  However, both teams are looking forward to a great series.

Probable Starting Lineup:

LF Chris Kolkhorst Jr., L/R .352, 3 HR, 45 RBI
RF Dane Bubela Sr., L/R .302, 7 HR, 38 RBI
1B Vincent Sinisi Jr., L/L .344, 10 HR, 59 RBI
CF Austin Davis Jr., L/R .352, 6 HR, 62 RBI
2B Enrique Cruz Jr., R/R .339, 10 HR, 52 RBI
3B Craig Stansberry Jr., R/R .303, 6 HR, 54 RBI
DH Matt Ueckert Fr., L/L .243, 0 HR, 5 RBI
DH Jeff Blackinton Jr., R/R .281, 2 HR, 10 RBI
SS Paul Janish So., R/R .303, 4 HR, 41 RBI
C Justin Ruchti Sr., R/R .282, 2 HR, 19 RBI

Hitting Notes:
Vincent Sinisi was a second round draft pick who actually had a down year compared to his 2002 season when he hit .428 with 11 HR.  He is just 1-11 in Omaha...  Austin Davis leads the Owls with a .352 average and is 5-10 with a HR and 3 BB at the CWS...  Chris Kolkhorst is a scrappy leadoff hitter who has the aforementioned 39 BB and 25 HBP...  Enrique Cruz hits fourth against lefties and was named to Collegiate Baseball's All American Team (3rd Team)...  Justin Ruchti is hitting just .219 in the postseason but had an RBI single against Huston Street to send Rice to the Championship Series.

Probable Starting Rotation:

Saturday RHP Jeff Niemann (17-1, 1.67 ERA, 21 G/17 GS, 129 IP, 152 K)
The first team All-American Jeff Niemann gets the nod for Game 1, and why not?  He only made the first team, has a mid 90s fastball, is 6'9", 260, and totally shutdown SW Missouri St. until giving up back-to-back homers in the ninth inning.  He is 3-0 in the postseason with a 1.64 ERA, striking out 32 batters in 22 innings.

Sunday RHP Wade Townsend (11-1, 1.92 ERA, 28 G/12 GS, 112.2 IP, 160 K)
Townsend worked out of the bullpen for much of the year, and actually has five saves.  He entered the weekend rotation on just May the 25th.  His strikeout numbers are incredible and he is also a Baseball America first teamer.  8.2 innings against Texas last Monday, giving up 2 runs on 7 hits while striking out 10.

Monday RHP Philip Humber (10-3, 3.40 ERA, 17 GS, 119 IP, 134 K)   or
RHP Josh Baker (8-0, 3.26 ERA, 18 G/14 GS, 94 IP, 71 K)
Humber (pronounced UM-ber) has been an excellent third starter who is also an All-American, and may be the best starter in conference play for the Owls.  But Humber really struggled at times on Wednesday in a bizarre outing against Texas:  3.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, but 5 BB, 3 HBP (all in the first), and 8 K on 95 pitches.  Graham went to Baker out of the bullpen, who gave up just a run on five hits over 3.2 innings in relief, and has 14 starts this year.  If Monday is necessary, look for Humber to start but for Graham to have a quick hook.


RHP David Aardsma (6-3, 3.07 ERA, 39 G, 12 S)
RHP Colin Matheny (3-1, 2.29 ERA, 15 G)
Aardsma is a first round draft pick and has appeared in every game in the College World Series, but Rice's bullpen gets very little use other than him.  Matheny was a spot starter with the second most appearances, but other than him Rice does not have much experience in the pen.

Final Thoughts:

On paper this matchup is clearly about Rice's pitching versus Stanford's powerful offense.  But much like the Long Beach Series, the real matchup is probably Stanford's pitching vs. Rice's offense.  The Cardinal are stretched thin after having to play five games to get to the NCS, and will probably have every starter going on either short rest (Ryan McCally, Mark Romanczuk, John Hudgins) or it will be Tim Cunningham who has not pitched in almost a month.  But Rice's offense is not as good as Fullerton (at least on paper).  So the National Championship will likely rest on the weary Cardinal arms and how well they can shut down the Rice offense, while Stanford's offense claws out runs or waits for the two- or three-run HR.

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