RECAP: Chance Kirby punches out a career-high 13 (one away from program record) and UTSA blanks Rice on Sunday, 7-0.#BirdsUp?https://t.co/ddXQIfOUJr
— UTSA Baseball ⚾️ (@UTSABSB) May 6, 2018
On Wayne Graham’s last trip to San Antonio as coach of the Rice Owls, his team won two out of three from UTSA and kept hope alive for a shot at the postseason.
But after the Owls shut down the home team twice on Saturday, the Roadrunners returned the favor on Sunday, courtesy of a masterful performance from pitcher Chance Kirby.
Kirby pitched into the eighth inning and struck out a career-high 13 in UTSA’s 7-0 victory.
“UT-San Antonio has a fine baseball team,” Graham said. “Winning two out of three from them here is a big deal. The kid’s pitching performance today was really that good. There’s no joke. He really pitched well.”
Any series against the Graham-coached Owls is always a highlight on the Roadrunners’ home schedule.
But this one took on added significance on April 25, when the 82-year-old, College Baseball Hall of Famer announced that this season would be his last at Rice.
Based on what he had been told by a Rice administrator, Graham said his contract would not be extended and that his 27-year tenure as coach of the Owls would be coming to an end.
Discussing the impending end of an era, UTSA coach Jason Marshall said Graham’s legacy is secure in baseball circles.
“You talk about the respect of his peers, when he sits in a room talking baseball, you just sit there and shut your mouth and listen,” Marshall said. “He is just a great baseball coach and great baseball mind (who) has always gotten the most out of his players.”
Since Graham took charge in 1992, Rice has fared well on state, regional and national levels, compiling a record of 1,167-523.
Starting in 1995, the Owls embarked on a string of 23 straight NCAA tournaments, the third-longest streak in the nation behind Florida State (40) and Cal State-Fullerton (26).
In that time, they’ve played in seven College World Series, winning the 2003 national title along the way.
In the past two seasons, however, Rice’s dominance has started to fade.
Last year, the Owls struggled to a 13-25 start, before a late surge propelled them into the C-USA tournament and, ultimately, to the title at Biloxi, Miss.
This year, Rice (20-26-2) still has work to do even to qualify for the C-USA’s postseason event in Biloxi.
The Owls trail the UAB Blazers and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, both tied for eighth in the conference standings.
If the tournament started today, UAB and Western Kentucky (both 11-13) would have the edge over ninth-place Rice (9-13-2).
Fortunately for Graham, two weeks remain on the schedule, and he gets to play UAB at home next weekend before finishing at FIU.
UTSA’s Jonathan Tapia scores from third, sliding into home to beat a throw from the outfield on Ben Brookover’s second-inning sacrifice fly.
Graham, from Yoakum, turned into a solid 1950s-era amateur ball player at Houston Reagan and at the University of Texas.
He later played third base and outfield in the pros, including 10 games for the Gene Mauch-managed Philadelphia Phillies in 1963 and 20 more in ’64 for the New York Mets, under Casey Stengel.
Graham said he learned a lot in a short time under Stengel.
“I didn’t dare sit next to him on the bench–and that’s what I occupied with the Mets was the bench,” he said during his induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012. “But I was close enough to hear everything …
“He ran a commentary on the game as you went, especially on how the pitcher was pitching to our hitters, and I have grown to think that is pretty important.”
Graham didn’t get all the answers from Stengel.
He said he is struggling with the idea that he no longer will be coaching.
At the same time, Graham said he won’t allow his emotions to affect his work at the Owls prepare for the last two weeks.
“It’s rough off the field,” he said. “It’s not rough on the field. I’ve always come to the ball park with complete absorption in the game. I don’t have any choice. I couldn’t do it any other way.”
Having coached since the early 1970s, when he started at Houston Scarborough High School, Graham is philosophical about moving on.
“All things come to and end, unfortunately,” he said. “(But) I don’t know many people that coach that long. I’ve had 47 years in the game. Loved it.
“You know, I’m sort of like (former Texas football coach Darrell) Royal. He said the losses hurt a lot. Well, they do hurt. But I’m still able to recover. This has been a really rough year.”
Brookover sparked a two-run first inning for the Roadrunners with an opposite-field single to right.
UTSA by the numbers
Record: 26-20, 12-11 in C-USA
Place in the standings: Fifth
Pitching: Chance Kirby, 7 and 1/3 innings, 4 hits, 1 walk, 13 strikeouts
Hitting: 1B Ben Brookover and SS Joshua Lamb, both 2 for 4, with 3 RBI.
Fielding: Diving catches by CF Jonathan Tapia and LF Todd Bowles
UTSA at Old Dominion, Friday through Sunday