HOUSTON–Baylor assistant coach Mitch Thompson, sitting behind me in the press box with Bears pitching coach Steve Johnigan, leaned forward and said, "I can’t tell you how many games like that I’ve seen Rice win."
As they have so often in recent years, the Owls simply found a way to win a tight game Friday night. Rice used a leadoff walk in the 10th inning, a balk and an error to push across the winning run in a thrilling 5-4 decision over UCLA.
"Great ballgame," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "Unbelievable."
The third game of the day was the most intense, entertaining contest in a day full of entertaining games. It was also the third straight well-pitched game of the day.
Rice starter Mike Ojala had a bizarre line, using his vicious 80-82 mph curveball to rack up a career-high 11 strikeouts (a Houston College Classic record) in 6 2/3 innings. But he also surrendered 12 hits and a walk–yet allowed just three runs (two earned). Obviously all the strikeouts helped Ojala wriggle out of trouble after allowing hits, and the Owls played strong defense behind him. Most notably, super freshman Anthony Rendon made a beautiful backhanded stop on a one-hope smash off the bat of Cody Decker in the fifth, then turned a 5-4-3 double play.
As a team, the Owls set a new Houston College Classic record by striking out 17 batters, and Ojala didn’t do it all on his own. Rice coach Wayne Graham repeatedly said during the offseason that senior righthander Jordan Rogers was the surprise of the fall. Before the game today, he told me that Rogers reached 92 mph in a midweek win against Houston and that he’s touched 94 in the past. I didn’t see that kind of velocity tonight–his fastball was 89-90 for two innings on my Stalker Pro II radar gun–but he was awfully impressive. Rogers used a vicious 78-81 mph slider to collect five strikeouts over two perfect innings of relief to pick up the win.
"What can you say? Jordan Rogers was great," Graham said. "He’s throwing strikes. We found out something in the fall, a mechanical adjustment on something he’s been doing since he was 8 years old. I don’t know why we didn’t pick it up last year, but since then, he’s been throwing strikes. He was rocking back on his heel at the top of his delivery on his pivot foot, and that was causing him to fall off the mound. He will do it occasionally now, but not very often. He was around the strike zone all the time tonight."
Rogers seems to have more of an ability to throw his slider for strikes than Ojala does with his curve. Ojala is in the dirt all the time (not that it’s ineffective–quite the contrary), which led to three wild pitches tonight despite Diego Seastrunk’s impressive work behind the plate. Seastrunk saved Ojala countless wild pitches with his ability to block balls in the dirt.
"I thought he was extraordinary," Graham said of Seastrunk. "You can’t block every ball, but he must have had 15 blocks tonight–he was phenomenal. I thought that’s about as good as a catcher can do in those conditions."
"He’s one heck of a catcher," Ojala added. "I beat him up pretty bad back there, so I’m gonna have to take care of him this weekend."
Bruins starter Rob Rasmussen allowed just two more hits over five shutout innings after giving up four hits in Rice’s three-run first. He finished with four strikeouts and two walks and mixed four pitches effectively, but as expected his bread-and-butter was that mid-70s, drop-down curveball.
UCLA freshman righty Trevor Bauer has electric stuff and showed plenty of poise in pressure-packed situations. Though he dropped in one or two mid-70s curveballs as show pitches, Bauer worked mostly with a 91-93 mph fastball, an 81-84 power slider and a good 75-78 changeup. Though he relinquished UCLA’s 4-3 lead in the eighth on Rendon’s RBI double, then took the loss after second baseman Eddie Murray commited a game-ending error on what would have been an inning-ending groundout by Jeremy Rathjen in the 10th, Bauer made plenty of big pitches in tight spots. The biggest was a strikeout of Jimmy Comerota on an 82 mph slider to end the ninth after a long battle, stranding runners on first and second.
"I think you saw our future on the mound is pretty bright," Bruins coach John Savage said. "Bauer has a chance to be special–you’re talking about a high school guy coming to school early. Electric stuff . . . As I told our team, Trevor’s our closer. He’s a legitimate closer, nothing’s going to change on that. We can put the ball in his hands and have complete faith in him. We pitched out of some tough situations toward the end of the game, but that’s what great pitchers do. And he’s going to be a great pitcher–it’s just a matter of time. You’re talking about a guy that should be facing high school hitters right now."
Offensively, UCLA had plenty of bright spots. The Bruins got particularly good production out of the bottom of the lineup, as catcher Steve Rodriguez and Murray each delivered three hits. Murray also drove in two runs.
"Murray played a hell of a game," Savage said. "I just thought it was too bad he ended up kicking the ball at the end.
"It’s a tough loss, but I think we grew as a team, and we just have to make sure we come back because we’ll be playing Baylor before we know it."
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