05/27/2004 9:33 AM ET
Rice hurlers could be cream of draft
Three of four starters could go in first round
HOUSTON -- Baseball at Rice University used to be a spring diversion with only a modicum of success until coach Wayne Graham arrived before the 1992 season. By 2003 he led the Owls to the national championship.
By Gene Duffey / Special to MLB.com
This season, Graham has developed one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball. His four junior right-handers -- Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber, Wade Townsend and Josh Baker -- will undoubtedly be selected in next month's draft, with all but Baker likely to be picked in the first round.
"We've heard anywhere from No. 1 to 30 on Niemann," said Zane Curry, Rice's pitching coach. "Some people tell me Humber [is ahead of Niemann]. I've even heard three guys in the top 10 picks."
Unlike the days of old, the trio signed with Rice with the idea of playing pro ball.
"I knew coming to Rice would help me a lot," said Humber, who grew up in Carthage in Northeast Texas. "Being around this type of program makes you a better player."
Graham had earned a reputation at Rice for developing Major Leaguers such as Lance Berkman and Jose Cruz Jr. Even back in his days at San Jacinto (Junior) College, where he won five national championships, he taught Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.
At first glance they appear similar, a quartet of power pitchers throwing 88-94 mph, occasionally touching 96 or 97 on the radar gun. They look like the front line for a basketball team with Niemann standing 6-foot-9 and 265 pounds, and none of the others smaller than 6-foot-4 and 220.
"We all pitch completely different," Townsend said.
And they make each other better.
"You always need to compare yourself to other people," Townsend said of the competition among the starters. "I want to do better than the last guy who just threw."
Because of Niemann's height, the comparisons to Randy Johnson are inevitable, but far from accurate.
"He's more of a slinger," said Niemann, who takes full advantage of his height. "I come over the top."
Curry compared his pitching style to Jason Schmidt and Brad Penny.
"Obviously it creates a great hitting problem," Curry said of the angle from which Niemann throws. "A 94 mph fastball from a guy 6-foot-9 and a guy 5-foot-9 are two different things. Even umpires aren't used to seeing pitches come from that angle."
Niemann threw a slow curve when he arrived at Rice from Lamar High in Houston. It didn't work at the college level and Niemann switched to a slider, which he said is now his best pitch. He learned the knuckle-curve from his teammate, Townsend, to complete his repertoire.
Last year he was a gaudy 17-0 with a 1.70 ERA and 156 strikeouts, with only 35 walks in 137 innings. He has been slowed this season by a groin injury (5-2, 2.58), though he still has 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings and has held opponents to a .185 batting average.
Humber was a more modest 11-3 last season with a 3.30 ERA, but he threw a complete-game five-hitter in the championship game of the College World Series, beating Stanford, 14-2. This season he is 11-2 with a 1.66 ERA. Humber throws a fastball, curve, changeup and split-finger.
"That was the main pitch I used in the championship game," he said of his splitter that he developed as a freshman. "I had a lot of trouble with my changeup. I just tried [the split-finger] and liked it."
Humber compared his pitching style to Josh Beckett.
"I'm a little more quiet, more reserved [than the other Rice starters]," he said. "I don't show my emotions as much."
"Philip is introverted, intense," Curry said. "Sometimes he gets wound so tight he can't allow himself to just play."
Townsend could pass for a linebacker in terms of size and personality. His two favorite all-time pitchers are Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson. Figures.
"Wade gets the crowd pumped up," Humber said.
Townsend finished 11-2 last year with a 2.20 ERA and owns a 10-0 record and 1.55 ERA this season.
"I couldn't throw a strike for about three years," said Townsend, who lowered his weight from 250 to 230 for this season. "I came to Rice kind of as a third baseman. I always knew pitching was my future."
He hit .515 his senior year of high school at Dripping Springs in the Austin area and was hitting .346 in 26 at-bats this season.
"It's weird to think about us being apart, but it's going to happen."
-- Jeff Neimann, on Rice's four starters who will undoubtedly be selected in the June draft
"Wade's got the reputation of the best curveball [on the staff]," Curry said of Townsend's knuckle-curve. "He's got better command of his fastball this year."
Curry said Baker, who played one year at Alabama before transferring back home to Rice, could be drafted from the second to the fifth round.
"I wanted to see what the SEC was all about," said Baker, whose father, Johnny, had played linebacker and tight end at Mississippi State. "I realized it's not everything it's cracked up to be."
Graham, who learned under Casey Stengel in his brief stint as an infielder with the Mets, keeps the pro scouts at arm's length. But he did allow a group of 30 scouts a group interview with his pitchers on May 2. Graham may be able to distance himself from the draft, but the Owls pitching staff can't avoid thinking about it.
"Everybody tries to say they don't think about it, but you do," Townsend said.
"If you're a first-rounder, I don't think you can't not go," added Humber. "But I don't have in my mind any dollar figure."
"It's weird to think about us being apart, but it's going to happen," Niemann said.
Rice, 39-9 and ranked No. 3 this week in Baseball America, is almost sure to host a regional when the NCAA Tournament begins June 4.
The prospect of getting back to Omaha, trying to repeat as national champions, helps keep the Owls on track.
"It's tough to remain grounded as a 21-year-old kid and realize you're going to be a wealthy man in a couple of months," Curry said. "They've done a good job of that. Even after what they've accomplished, their pride and desire is still fierce."
Gene Duffey is a contributor to MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.