Kolkhorst, Niemann lead
Owls past Shockers
Rice advances to title game
By Jonathan Yardley
Special to CollegeBaseballInsider.com
Jonathan Yardley is a Rice University sophomore, sports
editor of the Rice Thresher and a radio announcer for Rice baseball on the Rice
University sports network.
and leadoff man Chris Kolkhorst has earned a reputation as a big-game player in
his two years with the Owls, and he only added to his resume Saturday.
Kolkhorst lofted a
three-run home run over the right-field fence with two out in the top of the
second inning, leading the hosting Owls (50-10) to a 10-1 demolition of
third-seeded Wichita State (48-26).
“In the playoffs you need
two-out hits,” Kolkhorst said. “They’re huge, and they kill the other team.”
Kolkhorst sparked Rice’s
victory in the regional championship last year against Washington and also had a
walkoff three-run home run against Houston last year. In March of this year, his
double ended Rice’s extra-inning win over defending national champion Texas.
Kolkhorst was not the only
Owl packing power on Saturday, as No. 2 hitter Paul Janish and No. 3 hitter
Vincent Sinisi each added home runs.
“[Production from the top
of the order] is very gratifying,” head coach Wayne Graham said. “It puts the
other team down quick.”
The 10 runs were more than
enough for sophomore right-hander Jeff Niemann, who survived first-inning
control problems to improve to a remarkable 15-0 on the season. With the
pitching and hitting covered, Rice also put its defense together, playing a
second consecutive errorless game highlighted by standout defensive plays from
middle infielders Janish and Enrique Cruz.
Left-hander Steve Ulmansiek
started for Wichita State, but Rice’s four left-handed hitters were not bothered
– Kolkhorst, Sinisi, Austin Davis, and Dane Bubela combined to go 5 for 15, and
Kolkhorst and Sinisi’s homers came against Ulmansiek.
“Our left-handed hitting is
unusual in that they have historically hit lefties very well,” Graham said. “I
used to try to get more right-handed bats in the lineup against lefties, but I
don’t worry about that anymore.”
It wasn’t a sure bet early
for Rice, however, despite Kolkhorst scoring in the top of the first on a Cruz
groundout for a 1-0 lead. Niemann walked two hitters in the first inning and
gave up a run on an RBI single from designated hitter Bryan Erstad to tie the
“I was leaving my fastball
up,” Niemann said. “I knew I had good stuff, I just needed to get my control.”
Niemann settled down to
retire 17 of 18 from the first-seventh innings, including 12 hitters in a row
from the third through the seventh. The 6-9 right-hander struck out 10 and did
not walk a hitter after the first inning.
“Early on, I was trying to
put every ball on the corner,” Niemann said. “Later, I hit the outer half and
let my defense work for me.”
The Rice defense came
through, taking Rice fans back to the Owls’ 30-game winning streak earlier in
the season. The hitters salted the game away in the sixth inning, taking a 7-1
lead on an RBI squeeze bunt from catcher Justin Ruchti and a single from
Kolkhorst, then sealing it on Janish’s two-run homer down the left-field line.
Wichita State head coach Gene Stephenson agreed that Rice was on top of its
“They had tremendous
pitching, and they executed very well,” Stephenson said. “They may not be able
to play any better than they played today.”
Stephenson’s squad has the
tough task of regrouping for tonight’s elimination game against Mississippi. The
Shockers beat Ole Miss 4-2 Friday night, but will be more tired than the Rebels
after playing the afternoon game in 97-degree heat. Stephenson, already without
leading hitter and sparkplug Phil Napolitan for the remainder of the season,
said he is unsure of the status of outfielders Nick Blasi and Drew Moffitt after
their fourth-inning collision led to both being removed later in the game.
“The heat was tremendous,”
Stephenson said. “It’ll be a minor miracle if we can come back. We need a
dominating pitching performance from David Sanders.”
Sanders was the Most
Valuable Player of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament after pitching
Wichita State to victory in the tournament’s final game. Winning without Blasi,
the leadoff man, and Moffitt, the leading power hitter, would be a tough task.
The winner of tonight’s
elimination game will have to beat Rice twice tomorrow, beginning at 1 p.m.
Home-field advantage has been a big boost for Rice, which drew 3,769 fans to
Saturday’s game, breaking a school record with more than 102,000 fans at Reckling
Park on the season. Graham declined to name a starting pitcher for tomorrow, but
sophomores Wade Townsend and Josh Baker are the most likely candidates.