Texas A&M's fantastic and unexpected baseball season came to a screeching halt this weekend, as the Rice Owls swept both Super Regional games to punch their ticket to Omaha. The Aggies end the season at 48-19, the fifth best record in school history, and claimed the Big 12 tournament and NCAA College Station Regional pennants along the way.
Rice took game one 3-2 in ten innings, taking advantage of Aggie errors for their first run and small ball for the last two. A&M took a 2-1 lead to the bottom of the ninth, but a single-sacrifice-single sequence allowed the Owls to tie the game up. Rice would then finish it off in the tenth, generating a run with two outs and no one aboard. A great bunt single by Danny Lehman was followed by a four pitch walk to Joe Savery. Jordan Dodson then singled to left field, allowed Lehman to score easily from second and end the game.
Game two had trouble written on it from the first inning. Rice scratched a run across in the top of the frame, and then the Aggies loaded the bags with none out and Owl starter Matt Langwell firmly on the ropes.
Craig Stinson went down swinging for the first out, and Luke Anders hit a weak ground ball to first base. Blake Stouffer was put out at second base, but the relay throw back to first was clearly late. Kyle Colligan scored from third, and Brandon Hicks was waved home from second to score easily as well.
Second base umpire Steve Mattingly, who ironically owns an umpiring school in Arizona, declared that Stouffer did not slide into the bag and interfered with Rice shortstop Brian Friday's attempt to throw out Anders at first. He ruled an immediate double play, disallowing the two runs. Replays and a picture posted by the Houston Chronicle showed Stouffer sliding into the back end of the bag, certainly a legal play, and making no contact whatsoever with Friday. Rob Childress argued vehemently, but to no avail, while Stouffer and Colligan had to be restrained from a certain dismissal from the game.
That call would be the play of the day, as it changed the entire complexion of the game. It's impossible to say if A&M would have won had they gotten those calls, but two runs were removed from the board, Aggie momentum was severely dashed and Rice's hurler was given time to settle down and perform to his capability—something he was not doing in the first inning.
The men in blue continued their textbook performance in the top of the second, as Josh Stinson attempted to complete a "strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out" double play but was unable to release the ball since the Rice hitter stepped into his arm path. The written letter of the law that was so important in the bottom of the first was apparently suspended following Mattingly's call, and the interference was not awarded.
Stinson found himself in the umpire's crosshairs in the bottom half of that inning as he fouled a ball off of his foot that rolled fair and was put out on the play. Replays again show that the ball clearly hit his foot, but no call was made. After a conference with Childress, home plate umpire David Savage conferred with Kelly Gonzalez at third base. The result of the meeting was about what Aggie fans expected, Gonzalez put his arms out to the side and shrugged his shoulders, apparently clueless to the play at the plate.
With momentum sufficiently dashed and Kyle Thebeau being inconsistent on the mound, Rice tacked on a pair of runs in next two frames. Savery launched an opposite field solo-shot in the third, and Lehmann scored on a bases loaded double play in the fourth.
The Aggies got on the scoreboard in the fourth, as Josh Stinson and Darby Brown hit back to back two out doubles. The game would become stagnant from that point until the seventh inning, except for Mattingly and Gonzalez growing tired of comments from left field and ejecting a pair of Aggie fans.
Rice would tack on runs in the seventh and eighth to extend their lead to 5-1, and an eighth inning solo homer by Blake Stouffer would cut the gap to the final 5-2 score. A&M's best chance to make a splash came with two on and two out in the seventh with Colligan (and his 10 homers) sitting at the plate. Deggs asked Colligan to bunt for a hit, but the bunt wasn't a great one and he was thrown out by a step at first base. Ben Feltner would try the same move to lead off the ninth inning. Once again, replays showed that he arrived at first base exactly with the throw, but it was much too late to expect any 50/50 calls to go A&M's way.
While it's easy, fashionable, and somewhat real to point at the officiating as a major cause of Saturday's demise—even Texas head coach Augie Garrido made comment on it in the press box—the fact remains that A&M had opportunities at the plate all weekend and failed to execute. That's not necessarily a knock on the A&M batters, as Rice threw All-American after All-American at them.
Ultimately, the inability to turn to those situations into runs is what ended the Aggies' season, and it's factual to say that the Rice arms were better than the A&M bats. They hit just .181 on the weekend against Owl pitching, reaching base at a meager .260. That's somewhat expected when great pitching collides with good hitting, but it puts the onus on execution when you have the bases loaded and no outs. While the call at second is controversial, it's moot if A&M hits a single or puts a ball in the gap.
Ultimately, the better team took this series, and the Owls are heading to Omaha. Aggie baseball fans will have the next nine months to ponder what might've been, as they had ample opportunity to take both contests in the series.
Bomber's weekend notebook
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