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FALL PROFILE: Rice Owls
2011 record: 42-21
Final 2011 PG
ranking: No. 16
Top returning players:
Chargois, OF Keenan Cook, P Tyler Duffey, P Jeremy Fant, OF Michael Fuda, INF
Derek Hamilton, INF Shane Hoelscher, P Austin Kubitza, C Craig Manuel, UTI
Chase McDowell, OF Jeremy Rathjen, INF/OF Michael Ratterree, P Matthew
Reckling, P John Simms, P Taylor Wall
3B Anthony Rendon, P Tony Cingrani, P Abel Gonzales
Areas of concern:
hard-hitting Anthony Rendon at the plate won’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be a
huge burden in the field as plenty of guys earned valuable time in the field
last season due to Rendon’s nagging injury. Still, the offense needs to be a
bit more productive in the spring. The Owls have an excellent ace pitcher in
Austin Kubitza, but must establish consistency with the other two starting
spots. One thing is for sure, though, this team is loaded with quality pitching
depth, something they’ve lacked at times the past few seasons.
What we think: The
Owls were forced to grant early playing time to a few newcomers last season
because of injuries to Anthony Rendon and Jeremy Rathjen. This fall, the Owls
don’t have Rendon but welcome back Rathjen, who has impressed coach Wayne
Graham so far this fall. The Owls should be much better at the plate in the
spring. On the mound, you have to love ace pitcher Austin Kubitza, who pitched
extremely well in clutch situations last season. He also is coming off a
fantastic summer. The Owls should have a solid rotation and an improved bullpen
with more quality depth. There’s no reason why Rice shouldn’t be in the hunt
for one of the eight spots in Omaha.
What they’re saying:
“You know what they say about potential, it can get coaches fired. But this
team has as much potential as any I’ve ever had here at Rice. We’ve got a lot
of guys with an important season behind them. We’re excited about this club.” –
Rice coach Wayne Graham
CB TICKET FEATURE: Rice inside scoop and notes
Few college baseball teams could lose a key contributor and
leader such as Anthony Rendon and actually be significantly better after his
Rice appears to be one of those teams.
The Owls put together a solid 2011 campaign, which included
an NCAA Regional host and a 42-21 overall record. They also captured another
Conference USA regular season title, splitting the honor with Southern
Though the Owls are disappointed they didn’t finish the ’11
campaign in the College World Series, they’ll have a great chance to avenge
themselves in the spring.
Sure, the Owls are without Rendon. They also must replace
reliever Tony Cingrani, who had a 1.74 ERA in 34 appearances last season, and
Abe Gonzales, who tallied a 2.91 ERA in 25 appearances. Otherwise, they return
every key player from last year’s successful club.
“We had some injuries last season that allowed some
newcomers to get some valuable experience, and that’s going to help us this
fall and in the spring,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “It’s going to be fun to
watch this team with another season of Division I baseball behind them.”
The Owls finished last season with a .286 team batting
average. In other words, they had a good, but far from great offense. Though
losing Rendon is a tough thing to overcome considering he drew 80 walks last
season and provided some much-needed protection to the middle of the lineup,
this unit should be better without him.
Rice welcomes back several key cogs with much upside,
including talented outfielder Jeremy Rathjen, who still got drafted by the
Yankees this past summer despite missing much of the spring with an ACL injury
that limited him to 61 at bats.
It also welcomes back speedy outfielder Michael Fuda, who
struggled mechanically last season on the way to a .255 average and just 18
RBIs. There’s also Chase McDowell, who logged 28 innings as a pitcher last
season and hit .313 in just 16 at bats. Despite coming off Tommy John surgery,
the Owls anticipate utilizing McDowell’s power at the plate.
“Rathjen is almost 100 percent back right now and he’s
really slamming the baseball this fall. I’ve been really, really impressed with
him. He says he can run just fine right now, but we’re going to play it safe
with him this fall and not use him too much,” Graham said. “We need McDowell to
hit for us because I think he brings some impressive power to the plate. As for
Fuda, he made some corrections to his swing after last season and I most
certainly don’t expect him to emulate last season’s results in the spring. I
expect him to be much more productive at the plate.”
The Owls have plenty of others to keep close tabs on this
fall. Veteran Michael Ratterree, who’s making the move from second base to the
outfield this fall, is coming off a campaign where he batted .327. Catcher
Craig Manuel is back after hitting .309, J.T. Chargois, who figures to pitch a
lot more in the spring, is back after hitting .299 at first base last season.
There also are talented youngsters Shane Hoelscher, Keenan Cook and Derek
Hamilton, who hit .281, .276 and .248, respectively last season.
“Hoelscher and Hamilton look a lot better right now, mainly
because they got much stronger and physical during the offseason,” Graham said.
“We anticipate Ratterree hitting well again and he’s a guy who throws very well
from the outfield, so we really like the idea of putting him out there right
Junior college transfer Christian Stringer is expected to
replace Ratterree at second.
“Stringer looks like a veteran player out there. He has had
some hamstring problems, but I don’t think there’s any question he can be a
solid Division I player,” he said. “We’re excited about his potential.”
Shifting the discussion to the pitching staff, this is a
unit the Owls are especially excited about as fall workouts continue.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Austin Kubitza was a Perfect
Game Freshman All-American and followed up a huge spring with an equally
impressive summer. Kubitza is the only lock for the weekend rotation.
Other candidates include John Simms, Tyler Duffey, Matthew
Reckling, Taylor Wall, J.T. Chargois and freshman Jordan Stephens.
Simms was a part-time starter last season and was very good
at times. The talented right-hander tallied a 3.32 ERA in 62 1/3 innings and
recorded 63 strikeouts. Simms is displaying much better command with his
breaking ball this fall and has put together some impressive bullpen sessions.
“We are looking at Simms as a starter, but we might just
have to keep him in the bullpen with the way he’s throwing. He’s throwing so
well,” he said. “But then again, it’ll be tough to keep three premier arms in
Veteran left-hander Taylor Wall has returned to his freshman
form this fall, while Duffey looks to make the transition to starter after
making 30 appearances and one start and tallying a 2.52 ERA last season.
Meanwhile, Stephens, a 6-foot-1, 180-pounder, is making a strong impression his
first few weeks with the program.
“I think Taylor looks tremendous right now, while Duffey has
the stuff to play a bigger role,” he said. “There’s also Stephens. He kind of
priced himself out of the draft and he kind of reminds me of Roy Oswalt with
his approach. He has a good arm and breaking ball and can consistently pitch
87-91. His delivery is pretty good, too.”
Chargois and Reckling are the wild cards. Chargois, whose
stock rose immensely this past summer, only threw 6 2/3 innings last season
because the Owls needed him primarily in an offensive role. This fall, Chargois
is consistently 90-93 and occasionally touching 94 mph on the radar gun.
Reckling, meanwhile, had a 3.10 ERA in 78 1/3 innings last season, but the Owls
still are working on his consistency.
“Chargois has to pitch a lot more for us. It would be unfair
if he didn’t, as that’s his future. He has big-time stuff, he can spin it and
his fastball moves with big-time velocity. He’s throwing harder than ever right
now and can touch 94 mph without a sweat,” he said. “Reckling’s stuff is very
good and his curveball is particularly very good right now. You never know what
might happen with him. If he gets better command, watch out.”
Other pitchers who will factor into roles include redshirt
freshman right-hander Connor Mason, who missed last season with an injury but
is getting closer to being 100 percent healthy this fall, in addition to
right-handers Tyler Spurlin, Jeremy Fant and Zech Lemond.
“Spurlin has a great arm, but he’s struggling a little with
the breaking ball right now,” he said. “I was impressed with Mason’s bullpen a
couple of days ago and I think his arm will be back at full strength in the
spring. Lemond is a great athlete that just knows how to go out there and throw
As with every college baseball team this time of year, the
Owls still have some work to do between now and the spring. The offense still
needs to get better and the pitching staff must find out who will have which
roles in the spring. But even without one of the nation’s premier players the
past few seasons in Anthony Rendon, there’s no reason why this program can’t be
in Omaha in 2012.
Now it’s all about putting the right pieces together.
Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org