Houston Regional Capsule

Houston Regional Capsule
Reckling Park, Houston

No. 1 Rice (49-12)
13th appearance, automatic, won Conference USA regular season and tournament, No. 2 national seed

No. 2 Texas Christian (46-12)
Sixth appearance, automatic, won Mountain West regular season and tournament

No. 3 Baylor (34-25)
14th appearance, at-large, Big 12

No. 4 Prairie View A&M (34-23)
Second appearance, automatic, won Southwestern Athletic tournament

Rice opened the season as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, and after struggling to a 3-4 start, the Owls began to show why they garnered such lofty expectations. For the second straight year, Rice went 22-2 in CUSA and won the conference tournament. Freshman righthander Ryan Berry (10-2, 2.72) emerged as the ace of a staff that also includes the 2005 national Freshman of the Year in lefthander/first baseman Joe Savery, and Berry has remained consistent even as Savery has battled occasional command woes. Senior righthander Ryne Tacker (9-1, 3.01, three saves) missed all of 2006 with a stress fracture below his elbow, but he emerged as the CUSA pitcher of the year. The return of closer Cole St.Clair from biceps tendonitis allowed Tacker to slide to the rotation, where he blossomed, but he left his CUSA tournament start against Memphis in the first inning with arm soreness. That, and Savery’s lackluster season finale against the Tigers two days later, are cause for some concern, but the offense produced 36 runs in the final two games of the tournament and could carry the Owls through a regional.

Texas Christian survived a brutal spate of early-season injuries to key contributors like Corey Steglich, Teddy Kruder, Matt Carpenter, Keith Conlon and Seth Garrison. Conlon and Steglich eventually returned, but Garrison had Tommy John surgery after getting off to a dominant 1-0, 1.96 start in 23 innings. Still, the pitching staff has survived, as flame-throwing closer Sam Demel (6-1, 2.12, 13 saves) has carried the bullpen in Garrison’s absence. Junior righthander Jake Arrieta entered the year as one of the top prospects in the college class but had a somewhat disappointing season by his lofty standards, going 9-3, 3.11. He came on strong late in the year, showing a 94 mph fastball and better command. Chris Johnson and Chance Corgan are both dependable starters behind him, giving TCU enough arms to make a run at Rice.

Baylor brought in the nation’s best recruiting class last year, and the freshmen were pressed into duty right away. Not surprisingly, the baby Bears took their lumps early and started 2-7 in conference play, but they came on in the second half of the season and punched their ticket to their ninth regional in 10 years by winning three games in the conference tournament to reach the Big 12 championship game. Touted freshman Aaron Miller and Dustin Dickerson have loads of talent and could get hot, but the Baylor offense is really carried by senior catcher Matt Czimskey (.362/.430/.664 with eight homers) and sophomore shortstop Beamer Weems (.318/.407/.550 with eight homers and 57 RBIs). Baylor figures to be a major force in 2008, but winning a regional against three experienced teams will be a tall order for this young club.

Prairie View A&M makes its second consecutive appearance at the Houston regional (as do host Rice and Baylor). The Panthers are one of the most dangerous No. 4 seeds in the tournament because of their speed and aggressive style of play. Prairie View leads the nation in stolen bases, led by second baseman Michael Richard (.402 average with 41 steals in 49 attempts) and 2006 national stolen base champion Calvin Lester (21 steals in 27 attempts). Lester was mired in a slump for most of the season in a classic case of draftitis, but he snapped out of it to win MVP honors in the SWAC tournament. Ace Wrandal Taylor threw 75 pitches in a win Wednesday and came back Sunday to throw 89 more, and it will probably take an even more Herculean effort from Taylor to get the Aggies through this regional. Prairie View moved power-armed righthander Josh Lara to the closer’s role last weekend and discovered he has a closer’s mentality. He’ll remain in the bullpen this weekend.