Last season at NCAA.com, we took a look back at some of the most successful college baseball programs' all-time starting nines. With the road to Omaha set to kick off the weekend of Feb. 15, it's time to rev the series back up.
Rice baseball kicks off the 2019 all-time starting nine series. Players' professional careers were not considered, just their college careers — along with consideration given to their positional fits as well as a batting order that could provide a combination of a high batting average, speed and power.
The Owls, a name synonymous with the NCAA tournament under head coach Wayne Graham, has pumped out plenty of talent. Twenty-three-straight trips to the postseason will tend to do that.
Second base: Donald Allen (1989-92)
Seems like the program's all-time leader in stolen bases (86) is a nice fit atop the Owls' all-time lineup. Allen played 219 games in a Rice uniform, which is also in the top 10 of Rice lore. He was the second in a run of speedy infielders, as Ben Matthews (84 steals) set the stolen base mark just prior to Allen. Allen gets the nod over Matthews after leading the team in hits and runs in a 1992 all-conference campaign.
Outfield: Jose Cruz, Jr. (1993-95)
Cruz, Jr. was a three-time All-American for the Owls, and rightfully so. His name is all over the top-10s of the Rice record books. Cruz, Jr. is fourth all-time with a .376 batting average, 203 RBI and 43 home runs, while his 199 runs scored are eighth-best in Owls’ lore.
Here’s one day he'll always be remembered for. On Feb. 9, 1995, Cruz, Jr. went off against Southwest Texas State for 10 RBI. Of course, it helped that he had three home runs in that game. Those three home runs were part of another streak. Cruz, Jr. homered in his last at-bat against Austin State the prior game, giving him four straight home runs. That feat is tied only by Lance Berkman in program history.
First base: Lance Berkman (1995-97)
File under no-brainer. Berkman was one of the best collegiate bats of his era, a perennial threat across the statistical board in average, home runs and run production. Berkman led the Owls in batting in 1996 (.398) and ’97 (.431), while still holding the lead or placing in the top five in most offensive categories. His runs (233), RBI (272) and home runs (67) are second to none, while his career average (.385) is second and his 285 hits are fourth.
Berkman was a two-time All-American and found himself on two All-Regional teams, taking home Most Outstanding Player honors in 1997. He was also the 1997 NCBWA National Player of the Year. Berkman’s legacy will last for eternity as he was enshrined in both the Rice and College Baseball Hall of Fame. Poor Vincent Sinisi. He's certainly overshadowed by Berkman, but the "other" Rice first baseman definitely deserves a shoutout. Don't feel too sorry for him though; Sinisi got the one thing Berkman never did as a member of the 2003 Rice national championship team.
Outfield: Bubba Crosby (1996-98)
The name Bubba alone seems worthy of all-time praise, but Crosby has the stats to claim his spot in the lineup. While seeing his name across the top 10 of nearly every run-producing category in the Rice record books is impressive, here's one better. Crosby blasted a home run in seven consecutive games from April 7-17 in 1998, including a four-homer performance on April 11 against New Mexico. But wait, there's more. Crosby's 1998 season was all about streaks, as he set the Rice mark with a 30-game hitting streak. Crosby finished his career in Houston with a .355 batting average, 59 home runs and 243 RBI, all top 10 marks in Rice history.
Third base: Anthony Rendon (2009-11)
Rendon began his career with Rice earning Baseball America's Freshman of the Year honors. His 2010 season is arguably the single-best in Rice history. Rendon took home just about every honor that season, including the 2010 Dick Howser Award as the nation's best collegiate baseball player. He hit .394 with 85 RBI in 2010 while blasting 26 home runs. That's four more home runs than times he struck out. And that's an unthinkable feat in today's era of launch angles and the swing-for-the-fences approach.
Shortstop: Damon Thames (1998-99)
All-American Eric Arnold was tough to overlook, as was Paul Janish from the 2003 team. But Thames' numbers were comparable in just two seasons at Rice. His .399 batting average is tops in program history as he was a hit machine, with not one but both of the top single-season marks for hits with 120 in 1998 and 118 In 1999. Those 120 hits translated to a career-high .424 in 1998, earning the two-time All-American the ABCA National Player of the Year award.
Outfield: Jay Knoblauh (1985-88)
This wasn’t an easy choice. Austin Davis could have easily earned this spot as Rice's career leader in both hits and doubles, as well as being a key bat on the 2003 CWS championship team. Knoblauh gets the nod thanks to a 1987 All-American campaign. He started his Owls career with a home run in his first at bat and finished his career amongst Rice's all-time leaders in the categories we love most: the power numbers. Knoblauh is fourth all-time in runs (20 behind Davis with 203), ninth in RBI (185), second in triples (15) and sixth in home runs (39). He entered the Rice Hall of Fame in 1999.
Catcher: Jerry Sims (1955-58)
Sims became a fixture behind home plate in his sophomore season and continued to improve through his final year in Houston. That 1958 season, Sims hit .327, but it was always about how he handled the pitching staff, known for his defensive and receiving skills. His work didn't go unnoticed. Sims was inducted into the Rice Hall of Fame in 1982.
Starting pitcher: Kenny Baugh (1998-2001)
There is no shortage of big-name arms to come out of Rice like Phillip Humber, Jeff Nichols, Allan Ramirez, Jeff Niemann and Norm Charlton to name a few. Baugh was a workhorse, making more starts and tossing more innings than any of those other names. The three-time All-American is second all-time in wins and the all-time leader in strikeouts and his name is all over single-season and career pitching top tens.
Head coach: Wayne Graham
With so much to say, we’ll start here: Thank You Coach! pic.twitter.com/LyNdC4jnJq— Rice Athletics (@RiceAthletics) May 27, 2018
Coach Graham is Rice baseball. His 1,173 wins over his 27-year tenure say it all. That's not simply compiling wins over a long time, that's an average of 43.4 victories a season, highlighted by a run of 16 straight 40-win seasons. His .689 winning percentage is the best in school history and he coached more games than anyone else by a large margin. Not enough? Ok, how about the Owls' 23 straight trips to the NCAA tournament under his tutelage, third-best all-time in college baseball history? Despite only one national championship, you just knew that Graham's teams would be in the hunt come May.