SI Vault
Daniel G. Habib
June 30, 2003
Wild RiceThe Owls beat Stanford to win their first national title in any sport
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June 30, 2003


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The Best at the CWS





John Hudgins




Became eighth pitcher to win three CWS games; struck out 15 in 24 innings

Jeff Niemann




Overpowering righthander fanned 14 in two games; ended season 17-0

Jonny Ash




Former benchwarmer had no career HRs entering CWS, but hit two in four games

Chris Kolkhorst




Saved Game 1 with two terrific catches; scored three runs in the clincher

Shane Costa


Cal Stafe-Fullerfon


Dangerous hitter to ail fields; batted. 412 in CWS with a homer and five RBIs

Wild Rice
The Owls beat Stanford to win their first national title in any sport

Two and barbecue, or so went the dis against Rice. On each of its three previous trips to the College World Series, in 1997, '99 and 2002, the small Houston school with the big academic reputation had quickly dropped two games and, as its detractors suggested, been left to grab a pulled-pork sandwich on its way out of Omaha. But with an offensive explosion in a 14-2 victory over gutty Stanford on Monday night, the Owls claimed their first national championship in any sport. "We've always had to battle the perception that we had not gotten far here," says coach Wayne Graham. "That perception has been destroyed."

Pitching was the centerpiece of Rice's team—the Owls' 2.74 regular-season ERA was the nation's second best—and sophomore righthander Jeff Niemann, who tied an NCAA record for the most wins (17) without a loss, was the centerpiece of the staff. Niemann, lightly recruited out of Lamar High, some 3? miles from the Rice campus, joined the Owls with a mid-90s fastball courtesy of his 6'9", 270-pound frame. He had no out pitch, however, besides a rainbow curve that Rice coaches informed him was too slow to be successful. Graham taught Niemann a slider, which he throws over the top like his fastball and which breaks down and away from righthanders.

In his first start of the season, against Texas A&M at Minute Maid Park, Niemann was touched for four runs in the first inning and was paid an angry visit by Graham. "I told him to quit worrying about spots so much and just gun it," Graham says. "He reminds me of Roger Clemens, and I told him he needed to rear back and grunt once in a while, like Roger does." Niemann quickly turned aggressive, using his fastball-slider combination to shut the Aggies down in a 10-5 win. Niemann took the same approach for the rest of the season, and in Game 1 against the Cardinal last Saturday, after a shaky first inning, he mowed hitters down, at one point retiring 16 of 17 as the Owls rallied to win in the 10th, 4-3.

In stark contrast to the gorilla ball of the late '90s—the peak of the offensive explosion came in '98, when USC beat Arizona State 21-14 in the championship game—pitching dominated this CWS. Teams batted .265, and there was an average of 11.6 runs per game, the lowest figures since '94. What Niemann accomplished for Rice, junior righthander John Hudgins duplicated for Stanford. A finesse pitcher with an uncanny resemblance—in both appearance and pitching style—to his model, Greg Maddux, Hudgins deployed a mid-80s fastball with pinpoint control and mixed it with a nibbling curve and a circle change-up to go 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA, despite throwing 350 pitches over nine days. "Not being a real power pitcher, I don't think the short rest affected me as much," Hudgins, who was named the series' Most Outstanding Player, said after limiting the Owls to three runs in seven innings in the Cardinal's 8-3 victory on Sunday. "It might have even helped my changeup."

The superiority of Rice's pitching staff was evident in the clincher. Righthander and usual No. 3 starter Philip Humber went the distance, allowing just five hits and two runs, and the Owls rode a single and five walks to a 3-0 lead they never relinquished. On a stage where power hitting normally rules, pitching was king instead.

Anaheim's Stud Reliever
Will Donnelly Be An All-Star?

No middle reliever has been more dominant this season than the Angels' Brendan Donnelly. In 38 innings through Sunday, Donnelly had struck out 45 and had an 0.47 ERA, lowest of all pitchers with at least nine innings.

Donnelly's superb first-half performance is worthy of strong All-Star consideration, and his chances would seem to be good, given that middle relievers have become trendy roster picks. But Donnelly's status as a replacement player (he signed with the Reds during the 1994-95 strike) could prevent him from being selected to the midsummer classic.

A new voting system, which goes into effect this year, allows players, coaches and managers to choose eight All-Star pitchers per league. And since the votes are not weighted, giving players more say, Donnelly could be left out The players' association won't admit replacement players as members, and even though Donnelly was a significant contributor to Anaheim's championship run last fall (going 1-0 with 7? shutout innings in the World Series), the union didn't allow his name to be included on any World Series souvenir merchandise.

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