Star-Bulletin Sports

Tuesday, May 18, 1999

R A I N B O W _ B A S E B A L L


‘Awesome’ Rice
team to beat in
WAC tourney

The UH baseball team
plays Texas Christian in
tomorrow's first round

By Al Chase


Can Rice be beaten in the Western Athletic Conference baseball tournament?

New Mexico gets the first shot tomorrow. Hawaii, Texas Christian, San Jose State and Nevada-Las Vegas could all earn the opportunity this week at Fresno State's Pete Beiden Field.

The Owls, two-time defending WAC champions and ranked No. 1, breezed through the last two tournaments in the minimum number of games (4) needed to claim the title. It's the only two seasons they have been in the conference.

"I thought they were good last year, but they are better this year. Rice is awesome," Hawaii head coach Les Murakami said.

"Rice is the favorite, without a doubt," said New Mexico coach Rich Alday. "They have pitching depth no one else has and they've had it for three years."

In fact, Alday, in his final season as a member of the NCAA baseball selection committee, said Rice is a lock for an NCAA regional berth even if the Owls were to exit the tournament without a win.

The tournament is the first in WAC history where the host team is not participating, making it a totally neutral event.

Hawaii, the No. 5 seed, drew No. 2 seed Texas Christian in tomorrow's first round. That suits Murakami just fine.

"I don't mind being seeded fifth and playing TCU," Murakami said. "I wouldn't want to play Rice first. I didn't want to catch them with (Mario) Ramos. He is an exceptional pitcher who controls the game. I think we can beat their other two guys (Jeff Nichols and Kenny Baugh)."

San Jose State plays UNLV in the other first-round game.

A look at the title contenders in order of seeding:

RICE (48-11 OVERALL, 25-5 WAC)

Start on the mound with starters Ramos (11-1, 2.34 ERA), Nichols (13-2, 4.64) and Baugh (9-2, 2.71). Then, if there is trouble, add closer Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl (5-1, 6 saves, 2.45) and one understands why the Owls only lost two consecutive games twice all season.

Offensively, Rice is led by Will Ford and Damon Thames, both hitting .385, with 57 and 54 RBIs, respectively. Charlie Williams (.349), Brett Smith (.317), Jason Gray (.314, 18 home runs, 55 RBIs), Zane Curry (.311) and Jacob Baker (.301) complete a very solid lineup.

TEXAS CHRISTIAN (29-24, 19-10)

Royce Huffman is Mr. Everything for the Horned Frogs, hitting .422 with 19 doubles, 3 triples, 13 homers and 57 RBIs. Shaun Wooley (.336), Mark Hamilton (.329) and Eric McLamore (.327) are solid offensively. The Rainbows will face ace right-hander Scott Atkinson (9-4, 2.71) in tomorrow's game. TCU spreads the closer role around with Hamilton having three saves and three others recording two saves.

The Frogs (.311) and 'Bows (.309) have similar team batting averages. Opponents hit .294 against TCU, .265 against UH. Horned Frogs are 11-14 on the road in '99, UH is 10-8 on the road. TCU leads the series, all conference games, 5-1.

SAN JOSE STATE (28-24-1, 16-11)

The Spartans finished strong, winning 10 of their last 12 games (8-of-9 league). WAC Pitcher of the Week, right-hander Vince LaCorte (8-2, 2.68, 94 strikeouts, 24 walks), is the top man in a rotation that includes Jeremy Rogelstad (5-7, 5.03) and Steve Murphy (5-5, 3.65).

Junior Ruiz, who beat UH with a three-run homer in the ninth, is hitting .358 with a team-high 68 hits. The RBI leader is Todd Duncan with 48, followed by Mike Rouse (38) and Dan Winterberg (36). The Spartans run at times and have success (51 of 76 steal attempts, Rouse is 12 of 170).

NEVADA-LAS VEGAS (27-32, 16-14)

The Rebels won just three of their final nine WAC games and were outscored, 65-41, in the six defeats. UNLV is hitting .339 as a team and demonstrated great ability with the bat against UH. Leading the way is Chris Gillette (.388), followed Ryan Ludwick (.372), Chris Adolph (.361), Brian Hertel (.353), Tony DeMarco (.346) and Nate Kaup (.341). Ludwick and Hertel have 13 and 11 homers, respectively.

The problem has been opponents scoring 8.4 runs a game against the Rebels. The staff ERA is 7.07. Bryan Gidge is the best starting pitcher with a 6-2 record and 6.54 ERA. Andy McCulloch (4-8, 5.98) and Joe Maruffi (3-2, 9.78) round out the rotation.

HAWAII (36-18, 15-14)

"Our former starters (Randon Ho and Troy Yoshimasu) will not be able to go the distance. But the cupboard is kind of filled as far as the relievers are concerned," said Murakami. "I just hope Richard Snider and Dusty Bergman and Jamie Aloy can hang in there."

Murakami will start Bergman against TCU.

Sean Takamori (.367, 31 RBIs), Scooter Martines (.347, 42 RBIs) and Tracy Nakano (.329, 45 RBIs, 19-game hitting streak) need to keep producing.

Wakon Childers (2-0, five saves, 1.71) is the closer and has not blown a save opportunity.

NEW MEXICO (29-28-1, 14-15)

After Sunday's rain out, Alday told his team it was a new season.

"We've reached our first goal, made the tournament, and now we have to readjust and be ready," he said.

The Lobos' offense sputtered a bit at Rainbow Stadium, but should find Beiden Field more friendly.

Cory Robbins (.380, 17 HR, 73 RBIs), Mark Okano (.371), Chris Armstrong (.371, 7 HR, 48 RBIs), Scott Candelaria (.368, 60 RBIs), Mike Campbell (.357, 39 RBIs) and Aaron Sisk (.356, 20 HR, 76 RBIs) power the offense.

Left-hander Eddie Misquez (7-7, 5.96) and right-hander David Young (3-7, 7.46) are crafty pitchers who rely on keeping opponents off balance. Any pitch up in Fresno has a good chance of leaving the ballpark.

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