HOUSTON—Texas A&M entered Saturday's game against Rice with a 7-4 record, and its four losses were by a combined six runs. The Aggies knew it would take some time for their young lineup to gel, but they were confident their speed and athleticism would eventually make their offense formidable, and they believed they had enough quality arms to keep them afloat in the meantime.
"We've played 12 games, we've been in every single one of them, and we're just a big hit away from being 12-0, but we're not," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said after the Rice game. "We are what we are, and we own that, but we are improving, and that's the fun thing for this team. We're not a finished product, and I don't think we will be until the end of April."
On Saturday, Texas A&M fans got a glimpse of the dangerous team the Aggies are capable of being. The offense got going early in the game, scoring six runs over the first two innings against Rice's Jordan Stephens, and Daniel Mengden turned in eight strong innings to lead A&M to an 8-3 win.
"Coming in here and beating Rice is always great," Mengden said.
The top four hitters in A&M's lineup have been very productive so far this season, and they sparked A&M's pair of three-run rallies in the first two innings, combining to go 4-for-5 with three successful sacrifices in those two frames. Senior shortstop Mikey Reynolds is a stick of dynamite atop the order, leading the team with a .479 average and a .500 on-base percentage while tying for the team lead with six stolen bases. He went 3-for-4 with a pair of runs and an RBI Friday, while also making some outstanding plays at shortstop.
Afterward, with his uniform smeared with dirt—"When it's dirty, I play well," he said—Reynolds credited the Aggies' disciplined approach against Stephens with his team's success Saturday.
"Staying aggressive, staying on time to the fastball, and reacting to that slider," Reynolds said, explaining A&M's approach. "Taking that slider in the dirt, and hitting the fastball. It just comes down to trusting themselves and seeing a pitch that's over the plate. If you don't see it, just take it. I think our guys have gotten used to seeing curveballs in the dirt, and we're adjusting, the more games we play."
No. 2 hitter Krey Bratsen has put his sophomore year struggles behind him, hitting .356 and stealing six bases in seven tries. Childress said his confidence and maturity levels have grown substantially. Mengden (.356) has forced the Aggies to get his bat in the lineup every day as a sophomore, and he provides some physicality in the No. 3 hole. And freshman Jonathan Moroney (.382/.378/.588) has settled nicely into the cleanup spot. After a disappointing fall, Moroney went home during the winter break and "recalibrated," as Childress put it. A wiry 6-foot-3, 190-pound left fielder, Moroney has shown impressive pitch recognition and discipline over the first two days at Minute Maid Park, and he has intriguing leverage in his righthanded swing.
"Moroney's gotten so much better during a short time in our program," Childress said after Moroney's three-hit, three-RBI performance Friday against Houston. "If you'd have asked me in the fall where he was going to fit in the mix, I'd have said probably down the road—he's probably going to redshirt. But he has come back in the spring and made us play him. He's got a lot of life in his body and his bat, and is off to a good start for us."
And A&M's pitching has been strong as anticipated, posting a 2.33 staff ERA. Mengden, who has relied mostly on his fastball and changeup in the past, mixed four pitches effectively against the Owls, getting some swing-throughs on his 80-81 slider and giving hitters a different look with an occasional mid-70s curveball. His fastball wasn't as overpowering as it can be, ranging from 87-91, but he located it well.
"Almost everything was working pretty great today," Mengden said. "The changeup was working well. The slider, I threw one bad one, the curveball was working well for me. I just threw strikes and let the defense play."
The Aggies know there are still plenty of bumps in the road ahead for this young team, and the schedule doesn't let up, with a showdown against top-ranked North Carolina on Sunday followed by a trip to red-hot Cal State Fullerton next weekend, the final weekend before Southeastern Conference play begins. But there is plenty of reason to believe the Aggies can hold their own in the rugged SEC and find their way into a regional.
"We've got to grow up some of these young guys that are doing a really good job," Childress said. "The top of the order is really good, and they've gotten off to a great start. Mengden's making us play him every day with his bat, something he didn't do last year. Moroney is a pleasant surprise. It's a fun team. It has been so far just watching them grow each day. We've got a lot of challenges ahead, including tomorrow, and they don't get any easier as we go."
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