The OG is rooted in reality, a fact that partially explains his modest acceptance of what will be several top-10 national rankings when preseason polls are released by Baseball America, Rivals.com (via Yahoo! Sports), the NCBWA and the coaches in coming weeks. By his sound logic reputation is playing a significant role in the respect the Owls are garnering nationally, especially considering the unusual number of question marks surrounding their pitching staff.
What Rice accomplished in the aughts - 10 conference championships and NCAA Tournament bids, eight NCAA Super Regional berths, five College World Series appearances and one national championship - was derived from exceptional pitching. Any national survey would intrinsically link pitching prowess with Rice baseball, for the two are synonymous under The OG. The Owls' CWS participants were dominated by pitching, and professional clubs took notice by selecting eight Rice pitchers in the first round of the amateur draft during the decade:
2001 - RHP Kenny Baugh, Detroit (11th overall)
2001 - RHP Jon Skaggs, NY Yankees (42nd overall)
2003 - RHP David Aardsma
, San Francisco (22nd overall)
2004 - RHP Philip Humber
, NY Mets (3rd overall)
2004 - RHP Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay
2005 - RHP Wade Townsend, Tampa Bay (8th overall)
2007 - LHP Joe Savery, Philadelphia (19th overall)
2008 - RHP Bryan Price, Boston (45th overall)
Those eight pitchers represent the Owls' first-round selections from the aughts. Rice failed to produce one position player taken in the first round between 2000-09, its last coming in 1998 when OF Bubba Crosby was selected 23rd overall by the LA Dodgers. During that span Rice has had only three position players taken inside the first 100 players picked in any given draft.
Here are the first position players selected out of Rice from each of the last 10 amateur drafts:
2009: 2B Brock Holt, Pittsburgh, 9th round (265th overall)
2008: C Adam Zornes, San Diego, 7th round (225th overall)
2007: SS Brian Friday, Pittsburgh, 3rd round (98th overall)
2006: 2B Josh Rodriguez, Cleveland, 2nd round (57th overall)
2005: 1B Adam Rodgers, St. Louis, 25th round (770th overall)
2004: SS Paul Janish, Cincinnati
, 5th round (138th overall)
2003: OF Vincent Sinisi, Texas, 2nd round (46th overall)
2002: 2B Eric Arnold, Toronto, 10th round (296th overall)
2001: 1B Jesse Roman, St. Louis, 11th round (344th overall)
2000: 1B Derek Michaelis, LA Dodgers, 15th round (447th overall)
These selections validate, to a degree, the perception that Rice is a pitching-first program, which takes us back to the original premise. How can a program renowned for pitching lose its staff ace (Ryan Berry) to the Baltimore Orioles, its most effective reliever (Jordan Rogers) to eligibility exhaustion, and its No. 2 starter (Mike Ojala) to elbow surgery for a minimum of six weeks and still open the year ranked in the top 10? A potentially prolific batting order helps.
Of the nine players who recorded at least 100 at-bats in 2009, eight return to the fold. The Owls will replace Holt (.348/.425/.560 w/12 HRs & 43 RBIs) with freshman 2B Michael Ratterree, who might develop throughout his career into a superior prospect (a tall task because Holt was fabulous in his lone season with the Owls). Experienced hands return at 1B (Jimmy Comerota), SS (Rick Hague), 3B (Anthony Rendon) and C (Diego Seastrunk), while the outfield features exceptional talent (LF Michael Fuda, CF Steven Sultzbaugh, RF Chad Mozingo) and ridiculous depth (Jeremy Rathjen, Ryan Lewis, Daniel Gonzales-Luna). The roster is three-deep at catcher (with Craig Manuel and Geoff Perrott) and teeming with athletic freshmen. The OG will have to plug gaps on his staff with relative newcomers and unproven holdovers, but his lineup and defense have been set for months. That is a comforting fact.
All of which represents an intriguing turn of events. For a decade Rice relied on its pitchers to lead the way to Omaha, and at some point the emergence of LHP Tony Cingrani and RHPs Boogie Anagnostou and Tyler Duffey (not to mention the medical revivals of Ojala and RHP Anthony Fazio) could ultimately get the Owls over that proverbial hump. But in a sense traversing an unfamiliar path produces a different set of goosebumps. Instead of top-flight pitchers the Owls will feature Hague (projected by one source as a mid-to-late first-round selection this summer) and Rendon (a surefire first-round pick in 2011) and a collection of capable hitters. Instead of winning 3-1, Rice might regularly bash its way to 9-5 victories.
The destination remains the same, but the manner in which the Owls reach Omaha could vary. Having won one way so well for so long, an alternate method for success is welcome.