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Rice aces try to beat opponents, each other

by Jim Callis
May 21, 2004

CHICAGO—Rice's big three of Phil Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend all assumed prominent pitching roles as freshmen in 2002. They've appeared in two College World Series, won last year's and appear destined for another.

Because they're used mainly as weekend starters but occasionally as midweek relievers, at least one of them has taken the mound in 38 of the Owls' 48 games this spring. That number would be higher if Niemann hadn't missed a month with a strained groin. They've made a combined 167 appearances (110 starts) and worked 863 innings over the last three seasons, going 83-12, 2.33 with 17 saves.

With three weeks remaining before the 2004 draft, you'd think that both pro and college teams have had more than enough time to determine which pitcher is the best.

Think again.

Separating the three Rice righthanders is nearly as difficult as hitting them. And they're so driven that if one of them moves ahead, the other two will do anything to catch up.

"It's a very competitive group," Owls pitching coach Zane Curry said. "If they see one guy do something, the others will say that they have to put in more work. As much as they try to beat the other team, they try to beat each other. That works out good for them and good for us."

'So Close In So Many Ways'

For three years, Curry--a former Rice catcher--has had the best vantage point to judge Humber, Niemann and Townsend. While he won’t make his life more difficult by tabbing one as better than the others, he was happy to break them down in a variety of ways. There's one caveat, however.

"They're so close in so many ways," Curry said, "that if you asked me the same questions in March I might have had different answers."

Humber has had the best fastball velocity this spring, pitching at 90-94 mph and reaching as high as 97. Hampered by offseason arthroscopic surgery on his elbow and his groin problems, Niemann has sat at 89-94 but also has scraped 97. Townsend hasn't lit radar guns up as much as he has in the past, working mostly from 87-91 and popping some 95s.

Niemann is the clear winner for fastball movement. Townsend has the best fastball command, as he's able to work both corners with precision.

Picking the top slider is easy, because only Niemann throws one—and it's the best breaking ball in the entire draft. Humber's curveball currently rates an edge over Townsend's, though Townsend's can be nastier if a tad harder to control. None of them uses a changeup very often, but Humber's (it's really a splitter) is the best.

Niemann has the best overall command, and his delivery is both the cleanest and the most deceptive. That's a tribute to the hours the 6-foot-9, 260-pounder has spent working on keeping his mechanics in sync.

Humber has the most resilient arm, Niemann the most poise and Townsend is an easy choice for the most competitive. Townsend spits fire every time he takes the mound, though sometimes his emotions can get the best of him.

Niemann has an unbelievable pitcher's frame. Townsend (6-foot-4, 225) and Humber (6-foot-4, 210) have strong, durable builds as well.

Statistically, it's more of the same. Townsend has the best career ERA (1.98), Humber the most wins (33-6) and Niemann the highest winning percentage (27-3, .900).

Townsend has been the most difficult to hit (.183) and to make contact against (11.3 strikeouts per nine innings). Niemann has been the stingiest with walks (2.8 per nine) and homers (0.3 per nine). Humber was the first to join Rice's weekend rotation, early in his freshman season, and has logged the most starts (46) and innings (331). Townsend has the most saves (13).

Niemann Comes Out On Top

Opponents and scouts are in total agreement on only two things. The college coaches will be glad to see Rice's aces move on to pro ball. The scouts all say Humber, Niemann and Townsend will go in the first dozen picks in the June draft.

Two scouting directors and two crosscheckers tabbed Niemann as the best of the group, and they all cited different reasons. When he's fully healthy, he's the most dominant, as evidenced by his 17-0, 1.70 season in 2003, when he struck out 156 and walked just 35 in 137 innings. He offers the best package of stuff, polish and intimidation. His combination of size and body control is almost unprecedented. Hitters have the hardest time adjusting to his arm angles and downward plane.

One area scout and one coach went with Humber because he has been consistent at a high level for three years and has the best combination of three pitches. Winning the decisive game last year against Stanford in the College World Series seems to have boosted his confidence this season. Townsend got the nod from another coach, who loved his curveball and tenacity and predicted he'd be untouchable if he ever refined a changeup or splitter as a third pitch.

The Cape Cod League's official survey of scouts tabbed Townsend as the summer circuit's best prospect in 2003. BA's own Cape rankings put Niemann at No. 1, Townsend at No. 2 and Humber at No. 7. When we stacked them up for this Draft Preview issue, we went Niemann, Humber, Townsend.

This much is certain: They're the greatest three-man rotation in college baseball history, and it may be decades before we see another trio that can approach them.

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