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Believers of the "good pitching beats good hitting" mantra get some ammunition from the fact that the nation's top five teams in ERA are all sitting in this week's Top 25: Rice, Texas, Long Beach State, Central Florida and Oral Roberts.
Perusing the rosters of at least the first four teams turns up a handful of power arms per pitching staff -- guys who can run fastballs into the low-90s and breaking balls in the low-80s or better consistently. So the college baseball twist might be that power pitching -- not just guys who are good because they rely mostly on breaking balls -- beats good hitting. That's because most college hitters have slider-speed bats, so lineups that feast on thumbing control freaks during the regular season can run into trouble on the way to Omaha when a team trots out a few fireballers.
No. 4 Rice leads the country with a 2.46 ERA, thanks to a trio of righthanders who top out at 96. The Owls have kept that ERA up -- or down -- even without 6-foot-9 righthander Jeff Niemann since he left an April 13 start at Texas with a groin injury. A man of few words, Niemann said he was feeling "good" on Thursday, but that could mean anything from he's ready to return or he's glad exams are over.
Junior righthander Josh Baker has supplemented Rice's loss of one of its trio of potential first-round picks. The oft-overlooked 6-foot-5 pitcher has made the conference starts Niemann has missed and is 7-2, 2.91 with 71 strikeouts and 33 walks in 74 innings. He doesn't hit 96 mph like the others can but tops out around 92-93 and pitches right at 90. He has a solid slider and a good changeup at times and could be drafted in the third to fifth round, just like he was out of high school in 2001 when the Rangers chose him in the fourth round.
"On almost any other staff, Josh Baker would be the No. 1 pitcher," Rice coach Wayne Graham said.
Baker was the only Owls pitcher to win last weekend against Hawaii, allowing one run on three hits over 6 2/3 innings while registering six strikeouts. Though Rice dropped two of three against coach Mike Trapasso's Rainbows, it still leads the Western Athletic Conference at 17-3. The Owls have won or shared the WAC title (regular season or tournament) every year since joining the league in 1997. Rice can make its seventh straight championship all but a formality with a series win this weekend against Nevada, which is tied with Hawaii for second in the league at 12-9.
There's no doubt Rice's top three starters, or four when you include Baker, are unparalleled in college baseball. However, Texas makes a compelling argument for having the nation's best staff, judging from top to bottom. The No. 1 Longhorns have won all four games against the Owls this year and check in at a close second in the ERA race (2.48).
"People ask me what's the difference between that staff this year and the one from 2002 when we won the College World Series," said Frank Anderson, who left his job as Texas' pitching coach to take over the Oklahoma State job this season. "It's the middle relief. That 2002 team had guys we could get by with. This one has guys who can dominate."
Texas still has Huston Street anchoring the bullpen, but he's a junior now and could be better rested than in his CWS Most Outstanding Player run as a freshman, because he missed about a month earlier this season with a groin injury. Sophomore righthander J. Brent Cox earned five saves in Street's absence and earned an invite to try out for Team USA this summer with his 1.81 ERA. Freshmen Randy Boone and Kyle McCulloch also have strong stuff, whether they're used as midweek starters or weekend relievers. Having junior lefthander J.P. Howell (who transferred in last year) eat 92 innings with an 11-1, 1.77 record also helps the bullpen depth.
Texas plays a nonconference doubleheader against North Carolina State on Saturday.
Long Beach State is third with a 2.61 mark, largely thanks to the increasingly stunning performances of junior righthander Jered Weaver (school-record 17 punchouts last week) and sophomore lefty Cesar Ramos, who was invited to tryout for Team USA this summer based on his Weaver-like command and 9-3, 2.01 record. The No. 8 Dirtbags travel to face UC Riverside this weekend, and junior righthander A.J. Shappi (8-2, 3.54) should be back on the mound Sunday for the Highlanders after missing last week's turn with some muscle soreness.
No. 23 Central Florida has used a school-record 12 shutouts to post the nation's fourth-best ERA thus far, at 2.83. The Atlantic Sun-leading Golden Knights play Mercer in their final home series of the year.
Oral Roberts has used its normal domination of the Mid-Continent Conference to produce a 2.86 ERA, fifth in the country. The 16th-rated Golden Eagles, 14-0 in conference, play host to second-place Oakland (9-7) this weekend for a pair of doubleheaders. If Oral Roberts manages a sweep, it would clinch the top seed in the league tournament.