While baseball national championships are won in the June heat of Omaha, they can certainly be lost in the mild weather of February and March. While past years' baseball teams have never gotten off to devastating starts in the early season, the last few years have seen the Rice sluggers compile rather average records through the first few weekends of the season. However, the 2012 team has shown little inclination to following the examples of those squads of yesteryear, taking a 5-0 record into today's three-game series against Dallas Baptist University (3-1).
The season started a few hours later than expected, as late afternoon storms pushed the the first pitch against Florida International University (0-3) back from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Despite the delay, sophomore right-handed pitcher Austin Kubitza showed few signs of having a tight arm, pitching seven solid innings and allowing just four hits and one run while striking out eight, the most strikeouts by an Owl pitcher on opening day since Ryan Berry (Hanszen '10) in 2008. The offense got on track early as junior second baseman Christian Stringer, a transfer from Navarro Junior College, homered in the second inning over the right centerfield wall in his first at-bat as an Owl. An inning later, a single by sophomore third baseman Shane Hoelscher plated senior center fielder Michael Fuda, while junior left fielder Michael Ratterree scored on a bunt by senior catcher Craig Manuel. FIU struck in the fourth, as T.J. Shantz scored from third off a hit from Nathan Burns to make it 3-1 Owls. The next two innings were a duel between Kubitza and FIU left-hander R.J. Fondon, but the Owls broke through again in the seventh inning, as Hoelscher hit a three-run homer to give the Owls a five-run lead. The Panthers scored once more, but junior reliever Tyler Duffey shut the door in the ninth by getting two batters to line out and a third to strike out and give Rice a 6-2 win.
Senior Matthew Reckling took to the mound for the Owls on Saturday, squaring off against Panther left-hander Mason McVay, who featured a fastball that consistently registered in the mid-90s on the radar gun. McVay and Reckling pitched equally well, with Reckling throwing six scoreless innings, striking out seven and allowing just four hits. McVay allowed one fewer hit in 5.2 innings pitched but walked five compared to Reckling's one. The go-ahead run for Rice happened when McVay hit and walked the first two batters of the third inning, and after a sacrifice bunt, Fuda hit a deep sacrifice fly to bring home junior catcher Geoff Perrott. The Panthers stranded seven baserunners through seven innings but finally put up a run on a wild pitch in the eighth against junior reliever J.T. Chargois. Chargois had a disastrous eighth inning, allowing three singles and nearly two runs had it not been for the arm of Fuda, who caught a ball in center field, then gunned out a runner sprinting from third as Manuel blocked the plate.
The Owls answered in the bottom of the eighth, with sophomore shortstop Derek Hamilton doubling with two outs to score redshirt junior right fielder Jeremy Rathjen and designated hitter Chase McDowell. With a two-run cushion and Duffey heading into the game for the top of the ninth, it appeared the Owls would be 2-0 in a matter of minutes. But the Panthers had a flair for the dramatic and saved their best inning for the end as they twice rallied to score runs with two outs and the batter down to his last strike. The second situation saw FIU outfielder Jabari Henry crush a two-run home run over the hill in left field, giving the Panthers a 4-3 lead and stunning the Owl crowd, which believed that Rice's missed opportunities to put more runs on the board had finally caught up with the Owls.
But the Owls had some two-out, two-strike magic of their own. With Stringer walking to lead off, the Owls used a sacrifice bunt and fly ball to move him to third base. Rathjen stood in the box with two strikes, then nailed a high chopper to the shortstop, who was slow to react and hesitant to throw to first base, giving Rathjen just enough time to beat out the throw and score Stringer, tying the game at four runs. The crowd went wild, and extra innings were imminent for the second game. Senior left-handed pitcher Taylor Wall had come in to pitch during the ninth and continued his stellar performance over the 10th through 12th innings, getting three strikeouts and two pickoffs to hold the Panthers at bay and give his offense a chance for the win. Finally, Rathjen proved to be the hero again, launching a deep home run over the left-field fence in the 12th to give Rice a 5-4 victory.
Sunday's contest was no picnic for FIU, as the Panthers' quality of starting pitching dropped off dramatically after southpaws Fondon and McVay. Freshman Jose Lazaro lasted just two-thirds of an inning as Rice used a combination of two-hit batters, three walks and two hits to put five runs on the board in the first inning. That offensive boost was just what freshman pitcher Jordan Stephens needed in his Rice debut, as Stephens pitched a solid 4.1 innings, allowing one run and striking out three while struggling with his control at some points. A home run by redshirt junior first baseman Ryan Lewis made it 6-1, and the Owls added a few runs for kicks to make the final score 8-1. The Owl relief pitchers combined for 4.2 scoreless innings and allowed just three hits. Still, the story of the weekend was Rice's starting pitching, as the trio of Kubitza, Reckling and Stephens allowed just two runs over 17.1 innings pitched. Lewis spoke about what it meant for the Owls to get a sweep of the opening series for the first time since 2006.
"We've had our struggles since I've been here in the first weekend, so something that we really wanted to do was get a sweep," Lewis said.
New Mexico State University (3-3) came calling on Tuesday and Wednesday, high off winning three of four home games against Wake Forest University and boasting one of the best offenses in the nation statistically. The 2011 Aggies ranked in the top five in the nation in team batting average, runs scored per game and on-base percentage and presented a stiff challenge for the Owls' pitching staff.
Redshirt sophomore Chase McDowell did not fare well in his first return to the mound, allowing a solo home run in the first and giving up two singles in the second inning before Head Coach Wayne Graham pulled McDowell in favor of Wall. However, the Owls had already taken the lead in the bottom of the first, with Stringer scoring from third on a double play and Rathjen homering to give Rice a 2-1 lead. Even with Wall in, the Aggies managed to tie the game on an RBI single from Cody Edwards. Rice showed no signs of letting up in the second inning, with Stringer and Fuda both contributing singles with two outs to eventually score Hamilton. Stringer scored on an error, and Rice had itself a 4-2 lead. The Aggies were back again, with Wall quickly loading the bases with no outs, proceeding to score two more runs on a sacrifice fly ball and a groundout before stranding a runner.
Still, it was clear that New Mexico State had little quality pitching, as pitcher Tyler Mack allowed two more runs in the third, courtesy of two singles, an error and a sacrifice fly. The Aggie bats went silent until the eighth inning, when a combination of a double and single gave the Aggies their fifth run of the game. At that point, the Owls had already moved another run across in the fourth, enough to hold off the Aggies 7-5. Despite his early struggles in his first two innings, Wall threw three scoreless innings and left the combination of Duffey and Chargois to finish off the game, giving Chargois his first save of the season.
Wednesday's game finally saw an offensive show by Rice, as all nine hitters in the starting lineup had at least one hit, and redshirt junior right-handed pitcher Andrew Benak struck out a career-high 10 batters in 5.1 shutout innings. Benak, who has had an injury-riddled Rice career, emerged in January as a pitcher who had regained the velocity he showed as a freshman and gave Graham reason to give him a midweek start. His teammates were equally impressive, as Rice batters had five straight singles in the second inning, all with two outs, driving each other in for four runs. The third inning was nearly as good, with McDowell shaking off his pitching woes in favor of a three-run home run that scored Manuel and Hoelscher in addition to himself. At this point, the Aggies showed little fight, and sophomore pitcher John Simms, freshman pitcher Zech Lemond and Reckling picked up where Benak left off. Standout players included Stringer (4-6, one run), Hoelscher (4-4, four runs, one RBI) and Lewis (3-3, three RBIs).