HOUSTON—Immediately after the final out was recorded and the postgame handshakes were completed, all of Rice's players and coaches disappeared into the tunnel behind the third-base dugout at Minute Maid Park.
More than 20 minutes later, the players filed back out to collect their equipment. From the solemn expressions on their faces, you'd never guess the Owls had just beaten Texas Tech 3-2.
Finally, Rice coach Wayne Graham ambled out of the tunnel.
"I'm sorry guys," Graham said to the group of reporters waiting outside the dugout, "but I had to—what do you call it?—vent my wrath.
"I was stretching the bounds of my vocabulary."
So, what made Graham so upset after a 3-2 victory against a quality opponent?
"The baserunning," he said. "It was unbelievable. It isn't that we gave up three outs on the bases, it's that we gave up three baserunners. That's much worse than just giving up three outs. We can't do that. You just can't run yourself out of innings, in a situation where it isn't even that tough of a baserunning situation."
It was a day filled with poor baserunning in all three games at the Houston College Classic, but Graham was unquestionably more upset about his team's transgressions than any other coach. Perhaps that's one reason the Owls are so successful year in and year out: Their coach demands intelligent play.
Baserunners were at a premium for both teams in the last game of the day between the Owls and Red Raiders, as both Rice lefthander Tony Cingrani and Texas Tech righty Bobby Doran turned in strong outings. Doran, a physical 6-foot-6, 240-pound transfer from Seward County (Kan.) CC, gave up just two runs on seven hits and no walks while striking out five over seven strong innings. He induced plenty of awkward swings by attacking hitters with a lively 89-91 mph fastball, a 76-78 breaking ball and an 82 mph changeup.
The Owls got to Doran for a run in the second on a solo homer by Anthony Rendon, and again in the fourth on an RBI single up the middle by Jeremy Rathjen. But Doran limited the damage to just those two runs by making big pitches in big spots.
"I thought Bobby was great," Texas Tech coach Dan Spencer said. "He really made about two mistakes in about 100 pitches—a hanging breaking ball that got shot back through the middle to score a run, and a fastball that got to the middle of the plate, and Rendon did what he does with them. You throw that many pitches, and he was really sharp. He got a ground ball when he needed to to get out of an inning. He had a hard time getting the leadoff guy out in a few innings, but he pitched around that, and he's a very good competitor. He gives us a chance to win, and that's the key."
For a while, it looked like Rice's 2-0 lead would stand up behind Cingrani, another junior-college transfer making a strong impression on a big stage. The wily southpaw used a very lively 84-88 mph fastball, a good 77 mph changeup and an occasional slow curveball to keep the Red Raiders off balance into the seventh inning, when they tied the game up on Bonham Hough's two-run homer to left field.
"He did a great job," Graham said of his starter. "He's hard to hit. He's sneaky-fast, and his changeup was better tonight than it has been—he got three or four outs on his changeup, which I think he has to do to be successful. And even though he wasn't hitting with his curveball later on, he was still showing it, and he wasn't getting it in a location where he'd get hurt. One pitch was all that killed him, and he still pitched a great game."
It came down to a battle of the bullpens over the final two innings. Rice got solid work from righties Matthew Reckling and Tyler Duffey, and Texas Tech got equally strong work from Brett Bruening and hard-throwing lefty Jay Johnson. Johnson, yet another JC transfer, showed the best stuff of any pitcher in the game, throwing a 91-92 mph fastball from a low slot, an 80-82 slider and a 78-79 changeup. He got two big strikeouts to strand an inherited runner in scoring position in the eighth, but a leadoff walk and a hit batsman cost him in the ninth.
With one out and runners on the corners, Johnson made a good pitch to struggling Rice shortstop Rick Hague, running a fastball in on Hague's hands. Hague was jammed, but he fisted a flare down the right-field line for the game-winning RBI single.
"Johnson was great in the eighth, and Jay's learning—he's been a Division I baseball player for three weeks," Spencer said. "He's from Canada, and he's got a great arm. Jay's finding out just how fine the line is in Division I baseball. As good of stuff as you have, you get beat on a jam-job single because you had a walk and an HP in front of it. So he's a great competitor, and I'm obviously very glad he's here, but it's a fine line. We've got to get over the hump. We've got a chance to be good—this year—but it comes down to executing when you have to."
Rice, for all of Graham's discontent, still executed when it had to.
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