Though much of the talk entering this NCAA Regional might be about Texas and Texas A&M, Rice probably doesn’t mind it being that way. The Owls are the favorite to win this tournament, and for good reason. The Owls are in a groove offensively entering the weekend. Overall, the Owls have a .294 batting average, but hit an impressive .339 in the Conference USA tournament last weekend. Michael Aquino is sizzling at the plate, hitting .571 with two homers and 10 in last week’s conference tournament, while first baseman Skyler Ewing packs a powerful punch, and too, was hot last week with a .476 average and a home run. Meanwhile, shortstop Ford Stainback is another quality bat to watch, hitting .412 with five RBIs last week. Also keep close tabs on power-hitting catcher John Clay Reeves, who finally seems to be healthy. The Owls can cause trouble for opposing pitchers 1-9 … The most impressive aspect of this Rice team is how it has performed despite some serious injuries. The Owls lost righthanded pitcher Jordan Stephens early in the season, and were without righthanded star pitcher Zech Lemond for a few weeks. Lemond is back, albeit in a bullpen-only role, but most impressive, this Rice team continued to win even without him (or Stephens, for that matter). Lemond was consistently 93-95 with his fastball the past couple of weeks, while freshman righthanded pitcher Jon Duplantier has been a nice addition to the weekend with a fastball up to 94, and good overall stuff. Meanwhile, sophomore righty Kevin McCanna (2.81, 86.1 IP) has risen to the occasion, with lefthanded pitcher Blake Fox the headliner of this rotation. Fox, who has a 1.38 ERA in 97 2/3 innings, sits 86-88, touching 89 at times, with his fastball, but his ability to throw strikes, particularly with a good curveball, that allows him to be successful. The Owls also have a talented arm out of the bullpen in Matt Ditman, who’s made 25 appearances and has a 1.72 ERA in 68 innings.
Texas entered the season wanting to show some sort of improvement at the plate. Though the Longhorns’ .266 batting average suggests this team doesn’t do much offensively, that’s a deceptive number. Despite little offensive production in the Big 12 tournament, the ‘Horns still have some scary hitters. For instance, outfielder Mark Payton (.319/1/35) has good plate discipline and has reached in 94-straight games, while Madison Carter (.367/1/9) is hitting .486 in the last 10 games. Sophomore shortstop C.J. Hinojosa (.282/1/27) have the ability to get hot this weekend, while the Longhorns have a pair of younger hitters in C Tres Barrera and OF Ben Johnson that I like a lot. Barrera is hitting just .273, but packs a powerful punch at the plate with five homers, while Johnson is a terrific athlete with surprisingly good power, hitting .279 with six homers and 31 RBIs … As usually is the case with a Skip Johnson-led pitching staff, the Longhorns enter the weekend with a good crop of talented arms, but there is one obstacle out there with the news that lefthanded Dillon Peters will miss the postseason because of an elbow injury. Meanwhile, righthanded pitcher Nathan Thornhill was up to 93 last weekend and has a quality changeup to accompany the fastball, while the 'Horns likely will expect righthanded pitcher Lukas Schiraldi, another high quality arm, to rise to the occasion. Fellow righty Parker French likely will serve as a starter/reliever combo this weekend, while loose-armed righty John Curtiss is back, healthy, and his velocity is back to normal with a fastball up to 93-94. Also keep an eye on setup man Travis Duke, who has yet to allow an earned in 21 innings, while young righty Morgan Cooper (3.14, 48.2 IP) has been terrific this spring.
Texas A&M is one of the toughest teams to figure out in this field. The Aggies have series wins over Florida, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and LSU this season, but also have struggled at times against vastly inferior opponents. Basically, it’s a case of which A&M team shows up this weekend. A&M’s offense isn’t as good as its .286 batting average would indicate, but freshman duo of Nick Banks and Ryne Birk can cause some trouble for opposing teams. Birk is hitting .301 with two homers and 15 RBIs, while Banks is one of the nation’s top first-year players, hitting .348 with more power potential than his two homers would indicate. First baseman Cole Lankford is the top threat in this lineup with a .333 average, four homers and 42 RBIs, while a big key to the weekend is A) getting OF Krey Bratsen, who’s 18-for-19 in stolen bases, on base, and B) getting Blake Allemand in the mix. The Aggies seem to flourish offensively when Allemand was hitting atop the lineup. That needs to return. Also, the Aggies will be without OF Jonathan Moroney this weekend because of a broken hand, while SS Logan Taylor is 50-50 after suffering a dislocated knee cap against LSU a few weeks ago ... On the mound, the Aggies have an a talented ace righthanded pitcher in Daniel Mengden, who has been solid as of late, sits 89-93 with his fastball, and has a potentially wipeout, low-80s slider, to go with his fastball. Meanwhile, sophomore righty Grayson Long can touch 94 on the gun and has good overall stuff, while righthander Parker Ray is a tough guy to face in a potential third game. Ray sinks his pitches and has a terrific 79-81 changeup that just buries hitters. The bullpen is a concern for this A&M club, but power-armed AJ Minter (1.31, 20.2 IP) and Corey Ray (2.17, 29 IP), along with lefty specialist Ty Schlottmann, have a chance to keep things together at the back-end of games.
George Mason put together an impressive run through the Atlantic 10 tournament and enters the weekend with some scary arms, particularly junior righthanded pitcher Anthony Montefusco and senior lefthanded hurler Jared Gaynor. Montefusco has a 1.96 ERA in 101 innings, along with 81 strikeouts and 14 walks, possessing an 88-92 fastball with a plus change from a 3/4 arm slot. Meanwhile, Gaynor has a 1.67 ERA in 107 2/3 innings, and key reliever Tyler Zombro has appeared in 19 games and has a 1.96 ERA in 46 innings. Mason doesn’t have a load of quality pitching depth, but the two weekend starters are scary … Offensively, the Patriots enter the weekend with just a .271 batting average, but have an exciting duo to watch in third baseman Blaise Fernandez and outfielder Luke Willis. Fernandez is hitting .297 with four homers and 40 RBIs, while Willis has tremendous speed and 21 stolen bases this season, along with a .309 average, two homers and 34 RBIs. Overall, the Patriots don’t pack a powerful punch at the plate with just 15 homers as a team.
The Aggies and Longhorns absolutely have the ability to give Rice all it can handle, with the two teams a combined 3-1 against the top-seeded Owls this season. However, realize that three of those four contests were midweek bouts -- not on the weekend. Even without Peters, the 'Horns have enough talented arms to make things interesting this weekend. Then, there are the Aggies. You never know what to expect from A&M, but Mengden, Grayson Long and Parker Ray do formulate quite a solid weekend rotation. Still, at the end of the day, I see top-seeded Rice winning this NCAA Regional.