In a technical sense, the 2011 edition of the baseball team has improved over last year's, with a current 2-3 record being preferred to an 0-4 record that the 2010 squad boasted at this point in the season. Still, a tough series defeat to Stanford University (3-1), ranked eighth by Baseball America, and an even more perplexing loss to Lamar University on Tuesday has many Owls fans attempting to make comparisons between the lackluster start of this year's squad and the disastrous first week that the 2010 team had. With Rice starting two freshman pitchers on opening weekend, the casual fan may believe inexperience had much to do with the Owls' mediocre inception in 2011. But the starting pitchers were the highlight of the weekend, allowing just three earned runs in 17 innings of work (1.58 earned run average).Opening day on Feb. 18 began with a masterful first NCAA appearance from freshman pitcher John Simms. The right-hander allowed one run in five innings of work and tallied four strikeouts. Unfortunately for him, Stanford pitcher Mark Appel was equally on point, allowing two runs in 5.2 innings of work, easily reaching 98 mph on the radar gun. With freshman designated hitter Keenan Cook and sophomore first baseman J.T. Chargois providing two RBIs during the bottom of the fifth inning, it appeared that Rice could be in control of its inaugural game of 2011. However, Simms ran into trouble after hitting a batter and allowing a single in the sixth inning, but sophomore right-hander Chase McDowell luckily put out the fire by stranding two runners. The bats didn't produce much for Rice in the bottom half of the inning, but McDowell lost command of his changeup in the seventh inning and allowed four hits and two runs to give Stanford a 3-2 lead.
Rice came to bat after the seventh-inning stretch but was unable to muster any offense, and McDowell was finally relieved with two outs left in the top of the eighth inning after giving up two more runs.
The Rice offense continued to come up empty at the plate, and Stanford reliever Scott Snodgress held Rice to just one more run off a wild pitch, earning the win for the Cardinal with the final score being 5-3.
Saturday was a much different story for the Owls, with junior Matthew Reckling, who was named Conference USA Pitcher of the Week, pitching six scoreless innings and striking out four. On the offensive side of the game, Rice turned three second-inning hits into four runs, as Stanford starter Chris Reed was very erratic in his pitching. The third inning was much of the same for Rice, as sophomore catcher Geoff Perrott drove home junior third baseman Anthony Rendon, and freshman shortstop Derek Hamilton drove home fellow freshman Shane Hoelscher and junior Michael Fuda on a single to left field. Junior left-hander Taylor Wall allowed a home run in two innings of relief but held the large lead as Rice evened the series at a game apiece with a 7-1 victory.
The first pitch of Sunday's rubber match was at 1 p.m., with freshman Austin Kubitza getting the start. While he allowed two earned runs in six innings of work, Kubitza still held up the trend of excellent starting pitching by leaving the game with the Owls only down 3-1. Like on Friday, the Owls offense continued to struggle as Stanford's Dean McArdle and Danny Sandbrink allowed two runs and six hits. Meanwhile, sophomore reliever Tyler Duffey couldn't handle relieving Kubitza, as he gave up a home run on his first batter faced in the seventh inning and then three straight singles to begin the eighth inning, which put the game out of reach for Rice, giving the Cardinal a 6-2 victory and a series victory to take back to Palo Alto, Calif. Head Coach Wayne Graham commented on the offense's lack of production.
"Obviously we've got three guys that we know can hit," Graham said. "Rendon, [Jeremy] Rathjen, [Michael] Ratterree - we know they're going to hit, and they didn't. I guess you can say we probably didn't hit as well as expected."
Sophomore second baseman Michael Ratterree shared similar sentiments about the problems on offense.
"I'm frustrated, especially when our pitchers pitch the way they do and keep us in the game, and we fail to pick them up," Ratterree said. "It's extremely frustrating to get pitches we can hit and foul them off. We swing at bad pitches and take good pitches; it was an off day for the middle of our lineup."
Tuesday afternoon was yet another setback, with the Owls losing to Lamar University (2-3) by a score of 12-7, nearly matching their equally surprising 13-7 loss to the Cardinals last year. Seven Rice pitchers combined to surrender 23 hits, the most allowed in one game by Rice since 1998, when the University of New Mexico tallied 24. Senior lefty Tony Cingrani got the start but lasted just 2.1 innings after giving up seven hits and five runs. Sophomores Jeremy Fant and Holt McNair fared no better, pitching a combined one inning and allowing five more runners to cross home plate. At this point, Rice trailed 9-1 in the top of the fourth with no end in sight. Rendon led off the fourth with a single and then advanced to third off of a hit by junior center fielder Jeremy Rathjen. Rendon scored on a sacrifice fly by junior catcher Craig Manuel, and Rathjen scored off a balk. The Cardinals would come back to increase their lead to 11-3 in the fifth inning, as sophomore right-hander Tyler Spurlin allowed five hits and two runs in one inning of pitching. By this time, the game was out of reach for the Owls, who attempted a comeback off a three-run homer from McDowell and then loaded the bases with two outs for Manuel to potentially make the game 12-11 in the bottom of the ninth, but Manuel flied out to right field to end the game.
Wednesday's trip to San Marcos was a breath of fresh air for Rice, who fell behind early 3-0 to Texas State University (2-2) with McDowell continuing to struggle on the mound. But the Owls would storm back, scoring three runs with two outs after Chargois' bunt, a single by Rendon and a two run single by Rathjen. Rice finally took their first lead since Saturday off a double by sophomore right fielder Ryan Lewis, who scored Manuel and Rendon. The bats kept going in the sixth inning as Ratterree broke his slump by sending a two-run shot to left field, ballooning Rice's lead to 7-4. While the Bobcats would collect another run in the fifth, the Owls put the game away off a three-run homer by Rathjen in the eighth, ultimately winning 11-10.
Despite the positive outcome Wednesday, the problems faced by the Owls are twofold: The offense has performed poorly in clutch situations, with the quartet of Ratterree, Chargois, Rendon and Rathjen (the first four hitters in the lineup) going a combined 18-80 (.225 batting average) from the plate, and the bullpen has provided little ability to stem offensive barrages from the other team, allowing 26 runs in 27.1 innings of work (8.63 ERA). Rice will look to rectify the problems starting today at 4:30 p.m. when they take on the University of Southern California at Reckling Park.