2007 Rice Baseball Preview

Go C-USA! Brian Friday
Brian Friday

Jan. 24, 2007

The toughest part about sizing up the 2007 Rice baseball team is figuring out exactly where to start. Top to bottom, position by position, the combination of the Owls' returning players and newcomers looks even better than last season's 57-13 team that finished third at the College World Series. Look at the pitching, hitting, defense, speed, power, starters, depth and coaching, and its hard not to like the Blue & Gray.

The Rice pitching staff has nine returning veterans, including two all-America selections, but that is only a small part of the big picture. There are 11 more talented pitchers on the roster, a total of 20 in all, who could contribute in 2007. Junior all-America Joe Savery is back to start on the hill and he could be joined by juniors Bobby Bell and Will McDaniel and senior Ryne Tacker. Savery is one of college baseball's marquee players, earning all-America accolades for his dual role as a starting left-handed pitcher and first baseman. On the mound last season the local standout from nearby Lamar High School went 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA. He struck out 62 batters in 62 innings. Savery and Bell tied for third on the team with 11 starts and the duo are a formidable 1-2, lefty-righty, punch. Bell was 8-0 last season, improving his collegiate career record to an undefeated 12-0. The 6-foot-4, Aledo, Texas, native could also work out of the bullpen where he notched three saves a year ago.

In 2006 McDaniel also had the kind of year (7-1 record, 3.34 ERA) that could mean more starts. The right-hander from Bellaire Episcopal started mainly in the Owls' midweek games and gained notoriety by working against some of the country's best programs like Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma and LSU. In contrast, Tacker could come in under the radar but the right-hander is by no means lacking in experience. Tacker went 4-0 with a 3.93 ERA for the Owls in 2005, only to sit out all of last season with an injury. The former major league draft pick is ready to pitch again in 2007.

When you expect to play as long a college season as Rice routinely does, you need as many quality pitchers ready for starting assignments as possible. Three newcomers, the right-handed trio of Mike Ojala, Chris Kelley and Matt Langwell, captured the coaches' attention during the fall workouts and could garner coveted starts. Langwell is a sophomore transfer from Sam Houston State with pitching experience at the Division I level. Kelley is a junior who compiled a 16-4 record the previous two years at San Jacinto College. Ojala, a true freshman from Kingwood, is one of the up-and-coming stars in the Owls' recent recruiting class.

Last season, junior Cole St.Clair earned all-America honors after piling up 11 saves and a 1.82 ERA in 74.1 innings. He held a total of 258 hitters to an austere .151 batting average and was asked by Team USA to pitch for his country after the end of the college season. St.Clair made one of his two career starts at the College World Series, and the 6-foot-5 left-hander may have even more starting opportunities this season.

Even if St.Clair were to leave the bullpen, the Owls' still have a number of talented relievers to help. Junior left-hander Bobby Bramhall is the most experienced of the Rice relievers, working 53.1 innings in 26 relief appearances. He maintained a 2.36 ERA and is one of three southpaws in the bullpen. The other lefties are Jonathan Runnels, a junior transfer from San Jacinto College, and Abel Gonzales, a freshman from Houston's St. Thomas High School. Both are making their Division I debut.

There are as many as nine other right-handers available for relief duty. The experienced trio of senior Kyle Gunderson, junior Daniel Cooper and sophomore Bryan Price all saw action on a Rice pitching staff that was ranked among the best in the nation last season. Senior Scott Lonergan and freshman Mark Haynes were sidelined last season and did not pitch, but both are anxious to show what they can do.

Four newcomers could earn a lot of innings and have an impact. Jared Gayhart, a sophomore transfer from San Jacinto College, could be called on to pitch when not serving as an outfielder. Ryan Berry, Zack Harwood and Travis Wright are three true freshmen with a wealth of honors and accomplishments from the high school ranks. Berry in particular had sensational results in the fall practices. Head coach Wayne Graham's track record shows he is not afraid to play a deserving rookie who can help the team.

At catcher there's not just one or two, but three quality returning starters who combined to hit .293 with 19 doubles, 45 RBI and 43 runs scored. Senior Travis Reagan, junior Danny Lehmann and sophomore Adam Zornes are as deep a group as it gets in Division I. Last season Reagan was sidelined in the postseason run, a time of the year where he is at his most dangerous offensively, but his .294 average is back in the lineup. Lehmann has started more games behind the plate the last two years than any other Owl (85). His work handling the elite pitching staff is not lost on the Rice coaches and he has the hitting to match. The catcher who perhaps made the biggest splash in 2006 was Zornes, who batted .302 with a .500 slugging percentage in his first Division I season, and now has the playing experience to go along with his power. Any member of this catching trio could possibly serve as either the designated hitter or play first base as a way of cutting back on the fatigue unique to the position. Junior catcher Jacob Yunis has been a dedicated worker for the Owls the last two years and could play a more pronounced role in 2007.

The starting infield returns two consensus all-America selections and a 2006 freshman all-America. Mix in some promising newcomers and the Owl infield could prove to be among the country's best groups by the end of the season. Junior shortstop Brian Friday is an all-America selection coming off one of the best seasons in the country. The Houston native from Bellaire Episcopal High School led the team in batting average (.353) and sacrifice bunts (10) and was among the C-USA's best in hits (95), runs scored (66), at bats (269), RBI (57), doubles (22), total bases (150), on-base percentage (.437), slugging (.558) and stolen bases (17).

When not on the mound, Joe Savery is an all-America first baseman with a .356 career average who drove in 66 runs and scored 61 times in 69 games last season. A respected hitter from the left side, Savery was walked (intentionally or otherwise) more than any other Owl. The third returning starter to the infield is sophomore Aaron Luna, only this year he may change positions. Luna made 17 starts at third base and could again get some work there, but this year the freshman all-America from the Dallas area is projected to start at second. After batting .322 and clubbing the most home runs ever recorded by a Rice freshman (16), Luna figures to be somewhere in the batting order.

The competition in the fall workouts for the starting spot at third base was fierce, and it may remain so due to some talented newcomers for the job. Sophomore Jess Buenger has Division I experience after transferring from Texas A&M. The Bellville native showed his ability to switch-hit in the fall. True freshman Diego Seastrunk of Channelview High School is also a switch-hitter who saw a lot of action at the hot corner. He's versatile enough to play all the infield positions. Trey Crain from Ray High School in Corpus Christi is also a very athletic freshman who could get spot duty at third. Keep an eye on junior transfer J.P. Padron, a newcomer who enrolled in school and joined the team at the semester break. Padron did not participate in the fall practices, but the former major league draft pick from Clear Creek High School helped San Jacinto reach the Junior College World Series a year ago.

Breaking into the infield lineup outside of third base may be a tall order, but the Blue & Gray have some familiar faces returning in some key supporting roles. Junior Derek Myers came off the bench and played more than any other Owl last season. His speed makes him an offensive option and his .440 on-base percentage was the third highest total on the squad. Freshmen Andrew Guerra and Jimmy Comerota both served redshirt seasons a year ago while getting bigger, stronger and more experience.

The Owls have a veteran outfield that blends speed and power on offense with a sweeping range on defense. The junior trio of Tyler Henley (centerfield), Jordan Dodson (left) and Chad Lembeck (right) make up a talented and experienced group. Henley is an all-America candidate who led the conference in runs (74), doubles (26), triples (7) and total bases (156). He also finished among the C-USA leaders in hits (92), RBI (54) and at bats (274) and hit .385 in the NCAA tournament. Dodson improved in all areas from his freshman season, including a .297 average, and he saved his best for last by earning selection to the all-NCAA regional and all-conference tournament teams. Lembeck started 39 games before a nagging injury in the second half of the season. He has a good arm and speed to go along with the power to hit home runs.

When Lembeck was sidelined Aaron Luna played quite a bit in the outfield. Bobby Bramhall has outfield experience as well. Junior transfer Jared Gayhart is a left-handed hitter who had a tremendous fall. Freshmen Doug Simmons and Trey Crain played the outfield in high school and could help here as well. The young duo is expected to provide plenty of firepower once they gain more experience.

So, there are a number of places to start when sizing up the 2007 Rice baseball team. Just start at the top.



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