2012 Houston Regional Preview

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Houston Regional
Reckling Park, Houston (Host: Rice)

No. 1 Rice (40-17, 17-7 in C-USA)
18th appearance (17th straight), at-large, C-USA regular-season champion

No. 2 Arkansas (39-19, 16-14 in SEC)
25th appearance (11th straight), at-large, tied for second in SEC West

No. 3 Sam Houston State (38-20, 24-9 in Southland)
Seventh appearance (last in 2009), at-large, Southland regular-season champion

No. 4 Prairie View A&M (28-23, 15-8 in SWAC)
Third appearance (last in 2007), automatic, SWAC tournament champion

Rice continues to be the model of consistency in college baseball, winning a regular season or conference tournament championship for the 17th straight season and hosting a regional for the 10th time in the last 12 years. Entering the season, Rice was expected to have one of the nation's best bullpens, and indeed that has been the team's greatest strength. Righthander Tyler Duffey (1.71 ERA, 6 saves) has been especially dominant down the stretch, allowing just one unearned run in his last 28 innings spanning 30 appearances, while holding opponents to a .117 batting average. Duffey has quality stuff (an 88-92 fastball that touches 94 and a quality slider), and fellow righty J.T. Chargois (4-1, 2.25, 8 SV) has even more electric stuff, with a lively fastball that ranges from 93-98 mph and a power curveball in the low 80s. Lefthander Taylor Wall (6-4, 3.19) has developed a quality slider to go with his stellar changeup, making him a legitimate bullpen weapon against lefthanded hitters. The Owls also have four power-armed righthanded starters in C-USA pitcher of the year Matthew Reckling (8-2, 2.90), talented sophomores Austin Kubitza (6-4, 2.96) and John Simms (5-0, 2.72) and junior righty Andrew Benak (7-2, 2.70). As a staff, Rice leads the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (9.0) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (7.07). Rice plays very good defense, fielding at a .975 clip. The offense isn't flashy but is disciplined (drawing 269 walks, 12th-most in the country) and experienced. Newcomers Christian Stringer (.348) and Ford Stainback (.294) have held down the middle infield spots and emerged as catalysts in the top two spots in the order, setting the table for veterans Chargois, Jeremy Rathjen, Craig Manuel and Michael Fuda. Rathjen (.333, 9 HR) is the team's most dangerous hitter, but the Owls don't sit back and wait for the long ball.

Pitching depth is also the calling card of Arkansas, which entered the season ranked fourth in the nation but endured an up-and-down SEC campaign and went 0-2 in the conference tournament. Like Rice, the Razorbacks miss bats (ranking 13th nationally with 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings) and don't give up hits easily (ranking sixth with 7.69 hits allowed per nine). The Hogs will turn to bulldog righty D.J. Baxendale (7-4, 3.02) in the opener, and his strong performance down the stretch after a rough first half should give them confidence. Sophomore righty Ryne Stanek (6-4, 3.09) is one of the biggest X-factors in the field of 64; his raw stuff is electric (an explosive mid-90s fastball and a pair of wipeout breaking balls when he's at his best), and if he pitches like he did in the first half of the season, he can beat anyone. But he hasn't been at his best since mid-April, and he was banged up toward the end of the regular season. Of course, if Stanek gets in trouble, Arkansas has plenty of quality options behind him, from Brandon Moore to Colby Suggs to Barrett Astin to Nolan Sanburn to Cade Lynch. Each offers a different look, but all are very good. Corner infielders Matt Reynolds (.340/.451/.535, 7 HR, 41 RBI) and Dominic Ficociello (.309/.404/.456, 6 HR) lead an offense that is better than it was a year ago, but it still lacks consistency. The Hogs have athleticism and sporadic pop up and down the lineup, but they don't scare anyone.

This regional is a homecoming for Sam Houston State coach David Pierce, a former Rice assistant who left for SHSU last summer. The Bearkats won the Southland regular-season title by four games in Pierce's first season, breaking into the BA Top 25 for the first time in school history in the second half and putting themselves in position to snag an at-large bid—a change from their previous three trips to regionals, when they got hot in the conference tournament to win the automatic bid. The balanced Bearkats can win with their pitching or their offense, which lacks power but has good depth. Anthony Azar (.382/.429/.541) cooled off in the second half but still leads the team in hitting. Freshmen Colt Atwood (.317) and Corey Toups (.266) have done a fine job at key up-the-middle positions (center field and shortstop, respectively), while Kevin Miller (.324) plays a stellar third base and has made great strides as a hitter. The SHSU pitching staff also has quality depth, and lefthander Caleb Smith (8-5, 3.00) has blossomed into a bona fide ace as a sophomore thanks to a 90-94 fastball, decent slider and very good changeup. Righthander Michael Burchett (3.52, 8 SV), who saw his velocity jump into the 87-91 range when Pierce moved him from a sidearm slot back up to high three-quarters, anchors the bullpen.

After entering the SWAC tournament as the No. 3 seed, Prairie View A&M captured its first tournament championship since 2007. The Panthers are a heavy underdog in this regional, but they have a solid No. 1 starter in dogged lefthander Derrick Mitchell (6-4, 3.09) and a very reliable closer in Daniel Castillo (5-0, 1.81, 6 SV), who has 30 strikeouts and just four walks in 50 innings this year. That pair of arms gives Prairie View at least a chance to hang with Rice in the opener. The offense is no better than ordinary, ranking 226th in the nation in batting (.263) and 192nd in scoring (4.9 runs per game), but Prairie View does offer a bit of speed, ranking 51st int he nation with 1.37 steals per game. Andre Oliver leads the way with 18 stolen bases in 18 tries.