With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, many pundits would wave off any sweeping generalizations about what the 9-6 record of the baseball team bodes for their postseason hopes. But while it may be optimistic to ignore such prognostications, it's clear to anyone who has paid a visit to Reckling Park this year that the Owls are still in search of the consistent play that is a hallmark of any Omaha-bound squad. Rice began their slate of spring break games with a series against the University of Southern California on Feb. 25-27. The Owls got off to a quick start with a 10-7 victory on Feb. 25. After USC took a 3-0 lead heading to the bottom of the fifth inning, the Rice bats woke up, with the Owls scoring three runs before the Trojans recorded an out. Eleven batters later, the side was finally retired but not before a two-run home run by redshirt sophomore right fielder Ryan Lewis and a two-run single by junior center fielder Jeremy Rathjen had made the score 7-3. While junior pitcher Matthew Reckling was pulled after four innings, a four-hit, four-run combined effort from junior Taylor Wall, redshirt sophomore Andre Benak, and senior Abe Gonzales helped preserve a Rice lead that ballooned to 10-7 after a two-run home run from junior designated hitter Anthony Rendon. Saturday's contest was different in that Rice took a 3-1 lead into the sixth inning, courtesy of a Rendon home run and two one- RBI singles from Rathjen and freshman shortstop Derek Hamilton. The Trojans stormed back in the sixth inning, sending freshman pitcher Austin Kubitza packing after giving up a two-run home run to right field from Alex Sherrod and then hitting a batter with the bases loaded. Still, the bullpen provided some semblance of order for Rice as senior pitcher Tony Cingrani tossed two scoreless innings, giving the Owls time to collect three runs in the eighth inning, ultimately ending in a 6-5 victory for Rice. While the series victory had been clinched, Rice looked to earn the sweep on Sunday with freshman John Simms on the mound. Simms went 5.2 innings, allowing just one run on an inside-the-park home run.
With the seventh-inning stretch completed, the score remained tied at one run apiece, until sophomore first baseman J.T. Chargois tripled to right field with two outs, scoring sophomore second baseman Michael Ratterree and Hamilton. The Trojans would add another run in the eighth inning, but sophomore pitcher Chase McDowell shut USC down in the ninth inning to preserve the sweep.
A trip to the desert of Tuscon, Ariz. to face the 14th-ranked University of Arizona was in order for the Owls next, but Rice dug a grave for themselves as Cingrani and Anagnostou were roughed up early for eight runs, six of which were unearned. But before the coffin could be closed, the Owls rallied in the top of the sixth for five runs, including a single by Hamilton that brought in two runs with two outs. The Owls put across three more runners to tie the game at eight, but Benak could not hold the Wildcats at bay, allowing one run before being relieved in favor of senior pitcher Doug Simmons. Despite the 10-8 loss, Rice came back to Kindall/Sancet Field on Wednesday with revenge on its mind, which was delivered in the form of an 11-7 victory. McDowell provided nearly six innings of strong starting pitching, and the offense cruised to a 9-4 lead after five innings, led by three RBIs apiece from Rathjen and Rendon.
The Owls returned to Houston for the Houston College Classic, held at Minute Maid Park. The first contest was against the University of Kentucky (6-7) on Friday night, which was a test that Rice barely passed, squeaking out an 8-7 victory after Chargois closed the door on the Wildcats with a scoreless ninth inning. Rathjen went three for four with two RBIs, while sophomore catcher Geoff Perrott had two RBIs as well.
The big test came the following night against Texas A&M University (9-3), which turned into a pitchers' duel between Kubitza and the Aggies' Michael Wacha, who ultimately gave up a run in the third inning off a sacrifice fly from junior catcher Craig Manuel. Kubitza went the full nine innings, shutting out the Aggies 1-0. Head Coach Wayne Graham talked about Kubitza's performance after.
"You could see the focus out there. He looked like (Andy) Pettitte or (Roger) Clemens in terms of focus out there," said Graham.
Kubitza agreed with Graham as far as his effort on Saturday night.
"I was just feeling everything, the ball was moving, kept my breaking ball down and left a few up, and they hit them, but my defense was just there for me, and I made pitches when I needed to," Kubitza said.
Baylor University (6-5) was up next, and the Owls' bullpen simply could not protect a lead, as Wall and McDowell yielded four runs in four innings of work. The game went to the 11th inning, but Chargois gave up a walk-off grand slam to the Bears to end the game 12-8 in their favor. Rice dropped a game Tuesday to Sam Houston State University (11-2) by a score of 7-0, but the Owls righted the ship with a 10-2 victory over Florida International University on Wednesday.