Owls and Aggies square off again

Last time these two teams met, it was for a chance to move on to the NCAA Super Regionals. Now, these two teams are the only thing standing in each others way of a trip to Omaha and a chance to play for the national championship at the College World Series.

After years of running in circles and back-and-forth results, Texas A&M and Rice hook up this weekend with the penultimate prize on the line—a trip to Omaha.

A trip to the NCAA College World Series is at stake when the Aggies (48-17) take on the Owls (52-12), the consensus No. 1 ranked team in the nation and the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The two former Southwest Conference rivals have met 261 times, with the Aggies leading the series 173-86-2. They've met just twice in postseason play, splitting two games in the 2004 Houston Regional. Rice has the recent edge, taking seven of the last ten games, but the Aggies have won both games this season.

The first was a 4-2 win at Minute Maid Park, which features much of what's made the Aggies successful of late. David Newmann pitched 5.1 innings of three hit baseball, and Kyle Nicholson allowed just a single hit in the remaining 3.2. Craig Stinson was the fuel to the Aggies' offensive fire, going 3-for-3 with two RBI and two runs scored while hitting his first of twelve homers.

The other contest was the polar opposite, a four and a half hour game that the Aggies took 10-9. The pitching staffs were "all hands on deck," with 13 total hurlers making appearances in the game. A&M used 14 singles, a double, five walks and four batters hit by pitch to eek out an 11 inning victory over the favored Owls.

The Owls have amassed a ridiculous 35-4 record since that night, skating relatively clean through Conference USA and their own regional. They won both the regular season and tournament conference championships, losing just three regular season and one tournament game in conference play. They trekked easily through regional play, defeating Prairie View 5-0 before a pair of victories over TCU at 6-3 and 3-1, respectively.

As the recent scores would indicate, the Owls thrive on great pitching and situational hitting. That's always been the strategy for Rice head coach Wayne Graham, who's established himself as one of the finest coaches in college baseball.

The Owl staff has great numbers on the season, beginning with one of nation's best ERAs at 2.87. They've struck out 507 batters on the season (7.92 per game) while walking just 210, good enough for an outstanding 2.41:1 ratio. Opponents are hitting just .234 against the staff, which relies on depth over individual performance.

That depth goes to just eight hurlers that have thrown more than 13 innings this year, five of whom are "above the line" with at least 64 innings thrown. The staff has just one complete game on the season as Graham is quick with the hook, but doesn't spread the ball around much from there.

Leading that pack of arms is Freshman All-American and Friday night starter Ryan Berry (11-2, 2.72 ERA, 109 K, 30 BB in 109 IP, .241 BAA). Berry's numbers are incredible—an 11-2 record with a 2.72 ERA, 109 K to 30 BB in 109 innings of work—and hitters have just a .241 average against the lefty from Humble.

Berry features a great fastball complemented by a great change-up and above average breaking pitch. He's obviously efficient, but A&M will have some hope if they can get to him at all. He's allowed more extra base hits than anyone on the Rice staff (27 of the team's 115), including one third of all homeruns given up. Opponents have attempted just eight stolen bases against him, with five of them being thrown out—an outstanding ratio.

Saturday's starter has yet to be announced, but it's likely to depend on Friday night's game result. Should the Owls win, look for former Aggie pitcher Ryne Tacker (9-1, 3.01 ERA, .231 BAA) to toe the rubber for game two. If A&M wins game one, first round draft pick Joe Savery (10-1, 2.78 ERA, .239 BAA) will most likely head to the hill.

With the game on the line and the Owls needing a big stop, Graham will undoubtedly turn to Cole St. Clair (2.37 ERA, 7 SV, 21 K in 19 IP). St. Clair was out early in the season with an injury, but has returned to form during the Owls' CUSA and regional championship run.

The Owl offense is built around situational hitting and timely base-hits, and Graham has the talent to pull that style off. As a team, they're hitting .311 and averaging 7.3 runs per contest. Slugging is outstanding at .469, and the Owls' on base percentage is .406.

Savery is the team's leading hitter as well, batting .360 with four homeruns and 54 RBI. Southlake Carroll product Aaron Luna (.330 avg, 11 HR, 61 RBI) leads the team in home runs and RBI, and Brian Friday (.341-3-28) leads in runs scored (60) and stolen bases (14). The Owls are not nearly as aggressive as A&M offensively (50 steals this season), but they will move runners freely when the situation demands it.

While the Owls' offensive numbers are very good, Aggie fans will hope they continue their regional downswing. They hit just .263 during their three game playoff, averaging less than five runs per contest, but 10 of their 25 hits last weekend were for extra bases.

Even if the numbers aren't pretty, the Owls still seem to find a way to get it done when it's time.


KEYS TO VICTORY FOR THE AGGIES

Make Rice Beat You – Though A&M lost very few games this season, their losses were usually quite frustrating. Whether it be errors in the field, meatballs from the pitching staff, or wild hacks from the hitters, the Aggies have usually been to blame for their losses. A&M must be fundamentally sound—bunts have to go down each time that they need to, routine plays in the field must be made and bad pitches can't come with runners on base or in favorable counts. A&M won both contests this year against the Owls because, ultimately, they made fewer mistakes at better times. That trend must continue this weekend.

Play Within Yourself – Rob Childress and his staff of Matt Deggs, Jeremy Talbot, and Will Bolt have been absolutely outstanding at having this team play above their individual ability levels. Rice is a team that has more talent than A&M, but given the competition level, hasn't played as close to their ability as the Aggies have.

This has been accomplished by constant aggression and pressure; after all, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. However, the staff must keep each individual's self-expectation at a reasonable level and the overall focus on the team game. Kyle Colligan, Blake Stouffer, and Craig Stinson enter the weekend on absolute power tears at the plate, but that really isn't their game. Kyle Thebeau had the game of his life on Monday night, but it's unrealistic to expect a carbon copy performance from a player that's shown just one consistency—inconsistency. If Childress and crew can keep the swings from getting too long and the arms from over pitching in improper situations, the weekend has great potential.

The Aggie Killer Instinct – This very killer instinct that was oddly missing in the middle of the season has seemed to arise from the shadows. After looking almost incapable during the Texas series, "it" returned during the Big 12 tournament and regional play. A&M ran up a 6-0 record between the two tourneys in "elimination" games, and pulled the dagger out for the championship game each time. Three weeks ago it seemed unlikely that if given nine outs to a major championship, the Aggies would have the mindset to make that happen. Now, it feels like this instinct is not only a possibility, but a probability. Should the Aggies find themselves just moments from glory or failure, that same instinct must come back for one more week. If it does, you'll see the Aggies return to Omaha for the first time since 1999.






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