Rice entered the Eugene Regional without a win over a team ranked in Warren Nolan's RPI top 50 all season. Now they have two, both over an Oregon team that won a program-record 48 games before bowing out against the streaking Owls by an 11-4 final Monday night. Rice comes to Raleigh riding a streak of 12 wins in 13 games. The Owls have a deep lineup, three capable starters, and a solid closer.
Because Rice (44-18) knocked off the nationally seeded Ducks, N.C. State, which should have been a national seed to begin with, takes Oregon's host slot for the best of three series. It is the first time in program history that the Pack have hosted a super regional. Though Rice won two of three over Oregon in the regional, the Ducks actually outscored the Owls 15-12. Still, perusing Rice's roster gives one pause as to whether or not the Pack might have been better off in Eugene.
Offensively, the thing that stands out about the Owls is their ability to grind out at bats. They take 4.3 walks per game and get on base at a .371 clip as a team, with three regulars reaching over 40% of the time: Leon Byrd (.418 OBP), Christian Stringer (.417), and Shane Hoelscher (.404). There are simply no holes in the lineup; the worst OBP in the group belongs to Skyler Ewing, who reaches base more than a third of the time (.343).
While not a big power team, Rice does have a couple of run producers with the ability to leave the yard in Michael Aquino (.312/eight homers/42 RBI) and Michael Ratterree (.270/nine/41). And it's a testament to the depth of the lineup that the Owls hung 11 on Oregon Monday without Aquino or Ratterree driving in a run.
With a strong pitching staff, veteran skipper Wayne Graham is not above playing for one run. Graham, who has won 953 games in 21 seasons at Rice, saw his squad put down 82 sacrifice bunts, or better than 1.3 per game. (By comparison, the Pack sac it just 0.72 times per game). Rice doesn't run a lot, attempting about a steal per game and successfully swiping 64% of the time, which is an acceptable if not great percentage. Studies show that you are hurting your team more than helping it if you are not successful on at least two thirds of stolen base attempts. (By comparison, the Pack have stolen 104 bases at an impressive success rate of 75.9%.) Rice backstop Geoff Perrott gunned down over half of the runners that tried to steal on him, so he may be able to neutralize the Pack's advantage in the run game.
Austin Kubitza, who got the Mike Fox arm abuse treatment from Graham, closing out Monday's game after going seven innings Friday night, may be the toughest starter the Pack have seen all season. Rated the #122 2013 MLB draft prospect by Baseball America, Kubitza has gone 8-4 with a 2.02 ERA and struck out 126 batters in 102 1/3 innings. Carlos Rodon and projected top five picks Mark Appel and Jonathan Gray are among the short list of four pitchers in college baseball that have fanned more than Kubitza.
But Kubitza is not alone in the stout Rice rotation. Jordan Stephens (8-4, 2.48) fired a two-hit shutout against Oregon and John Simms (8-4, 2.61) will likely hear his name called in the first 10 rounds of the MLB draft.
Zach Lemond (7-1, 1.52, 14 saves), who won a pair of games in the Eugene regional, has been lights out at the back of the Rice bullpen. He went four shutout innings behind Kubitza in the opener as Rice walked off with an extra-inning win over San Francisco. He made his first start of the season in Monday's regional final and worked six and 2/3 innings.
It will be interesting to see if Kubitza and Lemond show any ill effects this weekend after being leaned on so heavily in Eugene.
The Owls only obvious weakness is their middle relief, which is why Graham turned to his closer as a starter and his ace to finish things off against Oregon. Blake Fox went 6-0 but opponents hit .280 off of him and he has a low strikeout rate (23 in 37 innings). After Fox, no one in the pen has been trusted to make more than 16 appearances and there are a lot of high ERAs.
If there is another weakness for the Owls, it's their schedule. They outscored opponents 5.2-3.6 for the year, but they haven't exactly faced murderer's row. They tied for the regular season crown and won the Conference USA tournament, but CUSA ranked as just the 10th toughest league this season (behind such baseball powers as the Sun Belt, Big East, and CAA). Prior to upending Oregon, the Owls were 0-5 against top 50 opponents; conversely, N.C. State has gone 20-10. The Pack faced a top 10 schedule, whereas the Owl's SOS barely made the top 100 (96th).
As far as like opponents, Rice went 0-1 against North Carolina, losing 1-0. The Owls went 2-1 against an ECU team that had a down year. The Pack were 2-0 against the Pirates and 1-2 against the Heels, losing an 18-inning affair in the ACC tournament against the squad that eventually garnered the NCAA tournament's #1 overall seed.
As the close loss to the Heels, wins over Oregon, and a healthy stat sheet demonstrate, Rice can play with the big boys, but the Pack's extensive experience against superior competition will hopefully help pave the way to Omaha. If the Pack staff can limit free passes, execute defensively on Owl bunts, and get into the soft underbelly that is the Owl pen, we should be penning our College World Series preview a week from today.
The first two super regional games will be televised on ESPN2, with a single game slated for 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (if necessary). If played, Sunday's game would air on ESPNU.