HOUSTON -- Arguably the greatest position player in program history arrived at Reckling Park Thursday afternoon clutching a black bat while wearing a Washington Nationals t-shirt, and former Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon made it difficult to disregard the cruelty of timing.
One by one preseason college baseball polls are being released, and the Owls' bandwagon appears to be filling fast. Rice is ranked sixth by Baseball America and seventh in the coaches' poll, and the Owls are a popular pick to make their first College World Series appearance since they capped a string of three consecutive trips to Omaha, Neb., in 2008.
Of course that was the season before Rendon arrived and established himself as the nation's best hitter and, if Rice qualifies for the CWS this season, that will make Rendon the Owls' equivalent of Don Mattingly, whose sensational career with the Yankees spanned 14 World Series-less years yet was bookended by Fall Classic berths in 1981 and 1996.
If the Owls are to emerge from their three-season hiatus and stand among the final eight teams in June, they will do so by virtue of what stands as their program calling card: the strength of their pitching. And while potential means little without realization, there is no disputing that the Owls' pitching depth this season is as ample as it's ever been.
"If we keep them healthy and they're as good as we think they are, that's true," Rice coach Wayne Graham said as the Owls opened preseason intrasquads on Friday. "We've got some candidates for starter and we've got a full bullpen, so full in fact that at this stage we're thinking about bringing (sophomore right-hander John) Simms back into starting."
Most programs would view Simms as a surefire ace worthy of taking the ball on Friday nights without so much of a second thought. But after Simms followed an up-and-down freshman season as a starter with an otherworldly performance as a reliever in the Cape Cod League -- Simms did not allow an earned run over 24 23 innings last summer -- Graham strongly considered teaming him with 2011 co-closer Tyler Duffey and junior right-hander J.T. Chargois, another Cape Cod star, in the bullpen.
Graham described the concept of featuring three power arms in one bullpen as "excessive" but that notion is plausible given the Owls' rotation options. Sophomore right-hander Austin Kubitza was named Conference USA Preseason Pitcher of the Year after earning league freshman of the year honors last season. Senior right-hander Matthew Reckling has, according to Graham, the same stuff of former standout Wade Townsend, who toiled as a midweek starter before emerging down the stretch of the Owls' national championship season in 2003.
Senior left-hander Taylor Wall provides savvy and reliability. Freshman right-hander Jordan Stephens' utilization of his repertoire belies his inexperience. That's four quality pitchers vying for three weekend slots, a grouping that excludes Simms and touted redshirt freshman right-hander Connor Mason, who recently cleared a psychological hurdle and appears poised to contribute after missing last season (elbow surgery).
What made the Owls' run to the '03 title so remarkable was that they essentially accomplished the feat with five pitchers, all right-handers: Townsend, Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann, Josh Baker and David Aardsma. Only time will tell if the quintet of Kubitza, Simms, Chargois, Reckling and Duffey can match the prolific production of the Owls' title-winning pitchers, but what Rice currently features in reserve trumps what Graham had at his disposal nine years ago. That fact is without dispute.
"What it does for some of these starters is they can go out and go as hard and as long as they can," Rice pitching coach Mike Taylor said. "You don't ever want guys to save anything, but if there's not a whole lot on the backside coming in experience-wise, guys subconsciously might try to go out and pace themselves.
"We always talk about that but it doesn't always get through, but now if three innings is all you can give today, make sure it's your three best innings. We've got a guy coming in as good as you out of the pen, and then when he can't go anymore we've got a guy as good as him and another guy as good as him. There shouldn't be a whole lot of drop-off."
In Kubitza, Reckling, Duffey, Simms and Wall the Owls return 336 13 innings from last season. Chargois pitched just 6 23 innings last season while also manning first base, but his dynamic summer not only made him a legitimate prospect, it significantly bolstered his self-confidence.
Even behind their top seven arms the Owls are teeming with promise. Mason was on par with Kubitza and Simms in scouting circles before his injury. Chase McDowell was ascending rapidly before he underwent elbow surgery (McDowell is slated to return by mid-March). Junior right-handers Jeremy Fant and Andrew Benak have enjoyed flashes of success and are viable options. Freshman right-handers Zech Lemond and Trevor Simms are intriguing talents buoyed by exceptional athleticism.
After losing key recruits like right-handers Trey Haley (Indians) and Brett Marshall (Yankees) to the first-year player draft in recent years, perhaps the pendulum of good fortune has swung in favor of Rice. Graham has nurtured the natural abilities of some of his pitchers while developing the skills of others who were less ballyhooed. Now he has a staff so deep that it's impossible to ignore the ceiling for this squad.
The Owls don't have Rendon around to carry them with his mighty bat. What they do feature is a collection of pitchers worthy of the challenge.
"The opportunity for us to do well is endless," Kubitza said. "We're all excited for pretty much everyone."
Follow me on Twitter @FSH_Owls