College : : Story
Monday, September 26, 2011

Rice has positive outlook

Kendall Rogers        

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2011 record: 42-21 (NCAA Regional)

Final 2011 PG ranking: No. 16
Top returning players:
UTI J.T. 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

Notable departures: 3B Anthony Rendon, P Tony Cingrani, P Abel Gonzales
Areas of concern:
Replacing 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 departure.


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 Mississippi.


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 now.”


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 the bullpen.”


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 strikes.”


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.

Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at

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