The performance by the Owls in Friday's series opener against Tulane University (22-15, 4-8 C-USA) epitomized precisely how the team has found success since dropping its conference opening series to the University of Central Florida (24-14, 4-8 C-USA) three weeks ago. With major contributions from the freshman class, led by the pitching of Austin Kubitza, and timely situational hitting late in games, Rice took the series opener from the Green Wave by a score of 3-1.
After Tulane took a 1-0 lead in the second on a run scoring double in the left-center gap, redshirt sophomore right fielder Ryan Lewis doubled to right in the third and scored on freshman left fielder Keenan Cook's single to tie the ballgame early on. With each team's ace on the mound, the middle innings went quietly, as neither team got a runner beyond second base. Tulane threatened in the sixth with leadoff singles, but Kubitza worked out of the jam by inducing an inning-ending double play after recording his seventh strikeout of the evening.
Kubitza's night came to an end in the seventh, after a pair of one-out singles put runners on the corners for Tulane. In came senior Tony Cingrani, the lefty who has established himself as Head Coach Wayne Graham's ace out of the bullpen, using a mid-90s fastball to earn one of the nation's top strikeout-to-walk ratios. Cingrani continued what has been a superb season on his part, striking out the final two batters to strand the bases loaded and keep the game tied up heading to the bottom of the seventh. Kubitza allowed just one run on six hits while fanning seven but again got little run support from his teammates and settled for the no-decision.
After Rice failed to score in the seventh in spite of a leadoff double from freshman shortstop Derek Hamilton, Cingrani held Tulane scoreless in the eighth before Tulane ace Conrad Flynn was removed from the game. Decimated by injuries to the pitching staff, the Green Wave brought only four bullpen arms to Houston and found themselves short on options in the later innings. With both bullpens squaring off in a tie game, the bottom of the eighth began with a single from sophomore second baseman Michael Ratterree. After a sacrifice bunt by junior catcher Craig Manuel, junior center fielder Michael Fuda broke the stalemate with a double to right field to plate Ratterree from second. After delivering in a similar spot last Friday at ECU, Fuda's first hit of the night put the Owls up 2-1 with just one out. Freshman third baseman Shane Hoelscher continued the rally with a single up the middle to bring in Fuda and cushion the lead for the final inning. The Owls would load the bases but strand all three runners, taking a 3-1 advantage into the top of the ninth. Graham called on sophomore reliever Tyler Duffey, who retired the side in order for his first save of the season, giving Rice the win in the opener. Lewis, Hamilton, Hoelscher, Cook and sophomore first baseman J.T. Chargois all had multi-hit games for Rice, and Cingrani earned the win for his work in relief of Kubitza.
The Saturday afternoon affair between the two teams would also turn into a battle of the bullpens, but the late-inning heroics did not come from the bats of the Owls. After going down 2-0 after one on Breast Cancer Awareness Day, the Owls took the lead in the third after Manuel blasted a three-run home run over the fence in right field. Shane Hoelscher came up one batter later and hit a towering blast on the hill in left, putting Rice up 4-2. Junior starter Matthew Reckling settled down after the first and kept Tulane off the board in the middle innings but elevated his pitch count with four walks and ran into trouble in the seventh. After retiring the leadoff batter, Reckling hit the next Tulane hitter and surrendered a short double down the right field line to put runners on second and third before he was taken out of the game. Sophomore Jeremy Fant came on in relief, and after a fielding error on a ground ball brought the first run in, Fant gave up a single with a runner on third to tie the game, 4-4, after seven innings.
With senior left-hander Abe Gonzales in to work the eighth, Tulane got a runner to second after a double with two outs in the inning. Gonzales struggled to record the inning's final out, as the Green Wave rallied to score three runs on three straight hits to go up 7-4 for good.
Getting the start for Graham on Sunday was junior Taylor Wall, the lefty ace from a year ago trying to work his way back into the rotation for Rice. After issuing a walk to the first batter of the game, Wall settled down nicely to induce a double play and get out of the frame unscathed. Rice went up 1-0 in the bottom half when Manuel singled to score junior designated hitter Anthony Rendon from second.
Wall would cruise through the first five innings, but after back-to-back walks to start the sixth inning, Wall gave up an RBI single with one out to tie the game and put runners on second and third. Wall was relieved by midweek hero freshman pitcher John Simms, who got the first batter to ground out to Hamilton with the infield playing in. The runner broke for home from third as Hamilton threw home and Manuel caught the high throw and made an outstanding tag to get the out at the plate. Simms got the last out of the inning on a groundout, keeping the game tied at 1-1.
Rendon started off the sixth for Rice with a single and moved to third with two outs after a sac bunt by Manuel and a groundout from Hoelscher. With sophomore catcher Geoff Perrott at the plate, Rendon broke for home on a wild pitch and beat the catcher to the plate with a head-first slide to give Rice the lead back. After Perrott walked and Fuda singled with two outs, Ratterree blew the game open with a line-drive three-run home run to left field to give Rice the 5-1 advantage.
"I've been struggling all year to hit the ball," noted Ratterree in his post-game interview. "So to come out here and see the ball well and get some good metal on it, it feels great."
Rice would go up 8-1 in the seventh after RBI hits from freshman left fielder Michael Aquino and Hoelscher, before consecutive walks loaded the bases for Ratterree. The sophomore delivered another three-run hit, driving a double to center field to give Rice an 11-1 lead and clinch the series in walk-off fashion. With the Sunday travel rule in effect (10+ run differential after 7 innings), the game ended on the double, giving the Owls their third straight conference series win. Simms got the win for Rice while earning C-USA Pitcher of the Week and National Pitcher of the Week honors, and Ratterree's six RBI performance got him C-USA Hitter of the Week accolades.
Wednesday night saw Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (22-19) come to Reckling Park, which was a house of horrors for the Islanders last year, as the Owls demolished them 23-1. This year's affair was much closer, with Rice squeaking out a 7-5 victory. Sophomore starting pitcher Tyler Spurlin lasted just two-thirds of an inning, allowing two runs off of two hits.
Fortunately, the Owls had also put across two runs in the first, with Manuel and Fuda driving in runs off of singles. Still, the Islanders' starting pitcher had the Rice lineup befuddled through three innings, before Lewis tripled to drive in Hoelscher and Fuda and knot the score at four runs apiece. One batter later, Hamilton grounded out to the shortstop, but Lewis scampered home to give Rice a 5-4 lead after four innings. Duffey and sophomore pitcher Holt McNair combined for 3.2 scoreless innings, and a bases-loaded walk to Rendon gave him his first RBI of the game and the Owls a 6-4 lead. Cingrani recorded his fourth save, and Duffey was charged with his fifth win of the year. Rice takes on the University of Alabama-Birmingham (21-16, 6-6 C-USA) this weekend in Birmingham, Ala.