HOUSTON–As Ryan Berry bounced out of the dugout to take the mound to start the ninth inning, the Rice faithful cramming the left half of the lower seating bowl at Minute Maid Park rose as one and greeted him with a boisterous standing ovation. A moment later, they began to chant: "Ry-an, Ber-ry (clap, clap, clapclapclap)."
Fueled by adrenaline, the atmosphere and the prospect of beating the No. 1 team in the nation, Berry reached back for a couple of 93 mph fastballs (his hardest of the night) and struck out the first two batters of the ninth before allowing a double to Texas A&M’s Brooks Raley. That wasn’t about to derail him–not on this night. He simply got Luke Anders to chase an 84 mph slider in the dirt, his 12th strikeout of the night, to cap a transcendent performance in a 2-0 win against the rival Aggies.
"That’s called dealing right there, man," Rice coach Wayne Graham said afterward. "He was back to some of the games he’s pitched in the past. That was as good as he’s ever pitched, though. He didn’t walk anybody and he struck out 12, and he gave up two hits–that’s about as good as it gets. Against aluminum bats, you can’t pitch better than that."
If Baylor’s Kendal Volz stood out for his efficiency earlier in the day, Berry took the concept to a new level. Rice’s junior righthander matched Volz’s 102-pitch mark, but he did it over nine innings, not seven as Volz did. Berry threw 69 strikes and used his fastball to get ahead in the count from start to finish. That was the biggest difference from last week, when Berry issued five walks and allowed seven runs (five earned) over 4 2/3 innings against Cal Poly.
"My freshman year, I did really well just throwing strikes and working off my fastball," Berry said. "Last weekend I threw my curveball for balls, fastball for balls–I just wasn’t the pitcher that I should be. Coach Graham pulled me in his office and said, ‘We need you to be the pitcher you were your freshman year.’ I needed an attitude change, maybe a mechanics change, and I pulled it all together tonight."
Two years ago, Berry burst onto the national scene at the Houston College Classic, allowing just three hits over six shutout innings in a win against Baylor in his collegiate debut. He went on to post one of the best freshman seasons in the nation, going 11-3, 3.01, but he regressed as a sophomore, going 8-5, 3.63. Tonight was vintage Berry.
"I think it’s just a matter of him going back to what he used to do," Graham said. "The first time I ever saw him pitch against our hitters his freshman year, I told the coaches, ‘He can’t throw anything but a strike. It’s all moving fastballs in the strike zone.’ That’s basically what he went back to–moving fastballs in the strike zone, throw the curveball over the plate."
Berry’s fastball sat at 89-91 most of the night, touching 92 occasionally and peaking at 93 in the ninth. His 80-82 curveball was devastating, and he got three strikeouts with his 83-84 slider. He couldn’t match Aggies starter Alex Wilson for pure fastball velocity, but there’s no question who turned in the best outing in this weekend full of standout pitching performances.
"The guy I pitched against was unbelievable, Kendal Volz went out there and was unbelievable, Gerrit Cole–all these guys are potential first-round picks," Berry said. "I might not have the potential to be someone like that, but I can pitch. And if I pitch my game I feel like I can beat anybody. Right now, I think I proved it to everybody."
More importantly, he was out to prove something to himself. And if you don’t think it meant more to do it against the Aggies (who were shut out for the first time since April 5, 2006–a streak of 156 games), think again.
"We’re probably the two best teams in Texas," Berry said. "Baseball America gave them the accolades, made them the No. 1 team in the country. I didn’t have a big performance last week, and I just wanted to prove myself–to myself–that I can go out there and pitch against anybody. I’m pretty much on top of the world right now, I feel really good. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could pitch against a team like Texas A&M.
"I think we have a six-game winning streak against A&M right now. I read what (Aggies center fielder Kyle) Colligan said over the offseason about how he thinks they’re the best team in Texas. I think we had a chip on our shoulder–we’ve been to Omaha three times and we have something to prove. My defense played real well, and the guys behind me, we just wanted to prove to everybody that we still think we’re the best in Texas."
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