Top-ranked Owls set high expectations for 2007
he baseball team is poised to make a return appearance at the College World Series this season, one off-season after exiting the tournament with a 22-inning scoreless streak and two disappointing losses to the eventual national champion Oregon State University.
With seven starters coming back, Rice has a deeper, more experienced team than the one that tallied a national-best 57-13 record in 2006. Depth and experience helped the Beavers to the national title — they were the only team in last year’s CWS field that qualified in 2005 — and was a major factor in the Owls’ ranking as the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country this year.
“[The ranking] has a lot to do with getting to Omaha and bringing a lot of people back,” head coach Wayne Graham said. “The leadership of the team is back — the guys who set the tone for everyone else.”
Among the Owls returning are junior All-America candidates Cole St.Clair and Joe Savery, arguably among the best left-handed pitchers in college baseball. However, their health is an early concern for Graham and the coaching staff. Savery is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder and St.Clair is rehabilitating a fluke shoulder injury incurred while working out. Both expect to be ready for the Owls’ season opener tomorrow at 2 p.m. against Division II power Central Missouri State University.
Savery, Baseball America’s preseason first-time utility player, will start at first base despite his injury. Last year, he hit .335 and led the team with 66 runs batted in despite playing most of the year with a shoulder injury that limited him to only 62 innings pitched. If Savery can return to his 2005 form — when he hit for a .382 average and 43 RBI while posting a 2.43 earned run average — he could provide solid offense at the cleanup spot in the batting order and serve as a much-needed anchor in the weekend rotation.
As for his return to the mound, Savery has had some pain-free throwing sessions in the bullpen during spring workouts, but Graham said he will be eased back into the rotation.
“No matter how ready [Savery] is, we’re not going to extend him for a long time,” Graham said. “He’s the one guy that will beg to stay in a game, but I’m not going to let him.”
Junior Brian Friday, Rice’s only first-team All-American position player a year ago, returns at shortstop. Friday had a breakout season in 2006, leading Rice with a .353 average while hitting 9 HR, 57 RBI and stealing 17 bases. He also brings major-league range to the middle infield, and his fielding, once a weakness, is now his most marketable asset as a pro prospect.
The loss of Greg Buchanan, the Houston Astros’ ninth-round draft pick, leaves a big hole at second base. Buchanan was one of the slickest-fielding second basemen in the country, and his switch-hitting ability made him an ideal hitter in the second spot in the lineup. However, Graham and the Owls have been grooming sophomore Aaron Luna in fall and spring practices to take up where Buchanan left off. Luna, named to Baseball America’s first-team freshman All-American team last year, hit a Rice freshman-record 16 HR and drove in 50 runs. Defensively, he jockeyed between third base and left field all season. Graham said he expects Luna to fill the second base spot adequately.
“He’s a smart ballplayer,” Graham said. “He adapts quicker than most people. There’s no pressure on him because he knows a position, if not at second base, [then] in left field.”
Third base should be a major point of concern for the Owls heading into the season. With last year’s third-sacker Josh Rodriguez now in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system, two newcomers are competing for the spot. Freshman Diego Seastrunk could get the opening-day start tomorrow. He gives Graham lineup options with his left-handed bat and may also see playing time as a designated hitter as the season goes on. But the early favorite to start at third is J.P. Padron, a junior transfer from San Jacinto College. A much-heralded power hitter in high school, Padron had a measly 4 HR and 20 RBI last year. Graham said he hopes his coaching staff can help Padron regain his power stroke.
“One of his big problems as a hitter is that he’s had too much information,” Graham said. “He’s had too many coaches. We’re noted for simplifying. We try to apply Occam’s razor to hitting — when there are many conflicting theories, the simplest one is the best.”
Even with the competition for third base, the Owls may be deepest behind the plate. Junior catcher Danny Lehmann returns as the primary backstop after a successful summer playing for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League, an off-season league that features some of the elite college baseball players in the country. Lehmann earned a reputation for his ability to keep balls in front of him while catching for former Owls Eddie Degerman and Bryce Cox, two MLB draft picks who threw devastating and difficult-to-catch breaking pitches.
“Lehmann is held in high regard throughout the nation not only for what he did last season, but what he did [in the Cape Cod League],” Graham said. “His reputation has grown just from the fact that his teams win.”
Joining Lehmann on the depth chart are senior Travis Reagan and sophomore Adam Zornes, both of whom could start for most Division I teams. Zornes has the most offensive potential of all three and will be a tough out as a designated hitter against left-handed pitching. He may also have the strongest arm. Zornes may get the start in some midweek games as Graham begins to prepare him for the starting job next year. Reagan was the everyday starter in 2004 before missing the beginning of 2005 with a foot injury that opened the door for Lehmann. Reagan should get one start per weekend series like he did last season when he was the primary catcher for Degerman. He also plays an adequate first base and could get into the lineup when Savery is on the mound.
In the outfield, the Owls’ speed makes them one of the more dangerous units in the country. Together, juniors Jordan Dodson, Chad Lembeck and Tyler Henley are quick enough to make tough plays. Henley has made 130 straight starts in centerfield for Rice, and his consistency from the left side of the plate makes him a strong presence in the batting order. He improved his offensive production significantly in 2006, hitting .336 with 54 RBI and a .436 on-base percentage.
Dodson is probably the most clutch hitter of the group. A two-time NCAA All-Regional team selection, Dodson batted .500 in last year’s Houston regional and knocked a two-run homer en route to beating LSU at the Baton Rouge regional two years ago. Lembeck, the probable starter in right field, has tremendous power but must improve on his .215 batting average from a year ago. He struggled with a back injury that kept him out of the lineup for much of the season, but he will be healthy heading into opening day and should be a threat to put up a double-digit home run total.
Sophomore transfer Jared Gayhart, also from San Jacinto, will provide some competition for playing time in the outfield. Gayhart’s left-handed bat will allow Graham to stack the lineup against strong right-handed starters. He also doubles as a pitcher and should see some time on the mound.
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