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Houston Regional Preview: Rice Faces Challenges From Baylor, California

Rice was able to overcome a dreadful start to the 2011 season, feasting on some weak Conference USA fodder to get themselves back to national seed status. As long as they continue to win out, Rice will have homefield all the way to the College World Series. The first step towards getting there will be taking care of the Houston regional, a double elimination tournament where the Owls (41-19) will host Baylor (29-26), California (31-20), and Alcorn State (27-28). Action kicks off on Friday, with the two sets of Bears meeting at 2 PM CST and Rice taking on the Braves at 6 PM CST. 

1) Rice Owls
Best draft-eligible player:
Anthony Rendon. You may have heard of him if you followed college baseball at all this year. He led the nation in walks drawn and turned that into a nifty .523 on-base percentage. In a down year for him.

The Owls will be looking for a big rebound from freshman Austin Kubitza. After being named CUSA's Freshman Of The Year, he was bombed in an opening round defeat against the UAB Blazers. Rice features a deep bullpen and a pitching staff that was in the top 10 nationally in strikeouts. On offense, it's basically just the Rendon show. Michael Ratterree has played well this year, but no other starter was able to compile a .400 slugging percentage for the Owls. Should they get matched up with a starter that is stingy with the base on balls, it could be a long afternoon for Rice.

2) Baylor Bears
Best draft-eligible player:
Probably Logan Verrett. Very athletic and has some decent stuff. He went 6-5 with a 2.81 ERA for the Bears this year, striking out 91 in 93 innings.

The Bears don't have a very impressive record, but were in a very competitive Big 12 Conference this year. The first key for their opponents will be shutting down the running game of Brooks Pinckard, who stole 32 of 34 bases, good enough to make the Top 10 nationally. They have a number of solid bats in Max Muncy, Chris Slater, and Cal Towey that could make life difficult for pitchers in this regional. Beyond Verrett, the pitching staff gets a little shaky though. None of the other starters were able to keep their ERA's under 3.5, and as a whole their staff tends to walk a bit too many people. If Baylor makes it out of this regional, it'll likely be on the strength of their bats rather than their arms.

3) California Bears
Best draft-eligible player: Erik Johnson. A starter that should be able to find a home in the first couple of rounds in the draft. Good offspeed stuff, a little thick, but has a power sinker that he uses to generate ground balls. 2.08 ERA in 14 starts, 91 strikeouts in 90 innings, but will nibble.

These Bears are one of the feel-good stories in the field, making the tournament after their baseball program was in danger of being eliminated due to budget cuts. Johnson leads a pretty intimidating pitching staff with a deep bullpen, and Justin Jones is a perfectly capable No. 2 starter. Marcus Semien is their best draft-eligible hitter, although he'll likely go for his tools and defense rather than his offense. Still, the Bears have a fairly deep lineup as well. Chad Bunting, Mitch Delfino, and Tony Renda form the nucleus of their offensive core. They may be the most balanced team in this field.

4) Alcorn State Braves
Best draft-eligible player:
Uhm, good question. The Braves don't have anyone who projects to be drafted highly. Senior outfielder Kenny Rowan is probably their most highly-regarded player, but he didn't have much of a year statistically. If you want to go on pure stats, senior Kilby Perdomo crushed the ball this year, smacking 10 homers and 12 doubles en route to a .626 slugging percentage.

The Braves have an offense very reminiscent of the Whitey Herzog-era Cardinals. Perdomo plays the role of Jack Clark, and the gnats around him pick up a ton of steals. Alcorn State was third in the nation with 133 total steals, and senior outfielder Brandon Hollins led the way with 37 of them in 45 attempts. The pitching...well, that's not likely to hold up here. The lowest qualified ERA on the Braves staff was 4.43. And that was in the SWAC. So...yeah. 

Prediction: Rice holds off California, advancing to the Super Regional with a 3-1 record. 

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.