HOUSTON—There has been plenty of frightful play—courtesy of California and Baylor—through a day and a half at the Astros Foundation College Classic, but the play of the Houston Cougars has been a pleasant surprise.
While Baylor pitchers issued 14 walks and hit two batters, and Baylor position players made three errors through seven innings Saturday, Houston has been patient and focused while playing two quality games.
The 10-run rule went into effect after seven innings Saturday, giving the Cougars a 15-4 win—their second straight victory this weekend, coming on the heels of a 7-6 win against Texas A&M on Friday. Houston is now 8-2, with a nice road series win at Texas State and a midweek win at Sam Houston State.
"My guys, we've been like this all year—they just play hard," Houston coach Todd Whitting said after last night's win against the Aggies. "I don't know if it's because they're young and dumb and don't know better, but they just give great effort, they don't give in."
Freshman second baseman Josh Vidales epitomizes that no-surrender attitude, never giving opposing pitchers anything at the top of the lineup. Vidales went 2-for-4 with a walk against the Aggies, and he set a new tournament record with four walks Saturday, along with a sacrifice bunt.
"Vidales has got a mature approach beyond his years—he's tough to pitch to," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said last night.
"He's had a lot of games where he's going 8-10 pitch at-bats," Whitting said, "so he's doing a good job. He's a sparkplug at the top, he's played great defense so far, and he was Conference USA player of the week his first time out. He just keeps getting better and better."
So do the Cougars, who are considerably more physical in the middle of the lineup this year thanks to the addition of shortstop Frankie Ratcliff in the No. 3 hole and the emergence of third baseman Jonathan Davis in the cleanup spot. Davis put the Cougars ahead for good in the first inning Saturday, following up two walks and an error with a grand slam into the Crawford Boxes above the left-field wall.
"These guys work hard in the weight room, and that was one of my goals coming into the year was to be more physical," Whitting said. "They started going on their own in the weight room since June, and it's starting to pay off for them a little bit.
"We're more athletic. This is our first ballclub where we've had a chance to go through the entire recruiting cycle. With no transfer rule anymore, with the kids making decisions in their junior year now, this is our first chance to get out there and work it and get a full class of guys who have a shot at it. Coach (Trip) Couch has done a good job, and we've got some really, really good young players that I'm excited about."
Two more freshmen hit in the top five slots in Houston's lineup Saturday. Left fielder Kyle Kirk had three RBIs out of the No. 2 slot, helping to break the game open with a two-run single in the second. Montemayor reached base in four of his five plate appearances and scored a pair of runs, a day after going 2-for-5 against the Aggies. With the Cougars missing a pair of injured seniors who would have hit in the middle of the lineup—Jake Lueneburg and Casey Grayson—Montemayor has provided a lift in the No. 5 hole.
"Montemayor hitting right there behind (Ratcliff and Davis) as a freshman, he's had a great year so far," Whitting said. "He's been a little bit of a surprise, and we need that."
The Cougars aren't blessed with overpowering arms, but wily righties Daniel Smith and Chase Wellbrock worked 5 2/3 combined innings of solid relief against the Aggies, and senior Austin Pruitt turned in six decent innings against Baylor.
Eventually, Houston's lack of pitching firepower could catch up with it, but for now its offense is playing with abundant confidence, making this team dangerous. And new pitching coach Frank Anderson, the former Oklahoma State head coach, has done a fine job getting the most out of his new staff.
"I can't say enough about what coach (Frank) Anderson's done with them," Whitting said. "I have a baseline with some of these returners, I know where they were last year, what they are right now. He doesn't have it, he's just coaching them up. But I know how much better he's gotten our staff, and I appreciate that."
It's too early to anoint Houston a legitimate contender—remember, the Cougars were solid at this tournament last year too, beating Tennessee and Arkansas, but they still finished 18-35 overall, and 5-18 in Conference USA. But there seems little doubt that Houston is making progress under Whitting's very capable direction, and Houston's lively fans will enjoy watching this group of freshmen over the next few years.
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