The Rice baseball team has won its conference championship every year since 1996. Over the weekend, the Owls began their quest to continue this streak when they traveled to San Antonio to play a three-game series against the University of Texas, San Antonio. Rice won two of the three games to bring its record to 10-9 on the season and 2-1 in Conference USA.
According to head coach Wayne Graham, the team’s performance was impressive considering the circumstances.
“It’s hard to win two out of three on the road sometimes, so I feel pretty good about [this series],” Graham said.
On Friday, it looked as though the Owls were going to have a frustrating start to conference play. After holding a 3-2 lead for much of the game, Rice surrendered two runs to the Roadrunners in the bottom of the seventh inning and trailed 4-3 entering the top of the ninth. In the ninth inning, however, the Owls sent 11 batters to the plate. They scored six runs on five hits to take a 9-4 lead and won by that same score. Sophomore center fielder Ryan Chandler went 3-for-4 on the day to lead the offense and junior pitcher Jon Duplantier threw six innings and gave up two runs to keep UTSA at bay.
The next day, the two teams returned to action as Rice looked to build on its momentum from the series-opening victory. Unfortunately for the Owls, they could not overcome the strong pitching by UTSA senior pitcher Aaron Burns. Burns allowed just one run and four hits in a complete game for his second win of the season. He was later named the Conference USA Pitcher of the Week for his performance. Rice senior pitcher Blake Fox nearly equaled Burns’ performance, but he allowed two runs in the seventh inning to give UTSA a 3-1 lead. The Roadrunners added three more runs in the eighth inning and won the game 6-1 to even the series at one game apiece.
In the series finale, the Owls mustered only three hits and yet again scored just one run. On Sunday, however, that offensive performance was enough to win the game as sophomore pitchers Ricardo Salinas and Glenn Otto combined to shut UTSA out. Otto in particular stood out as he closed the game with 3.1 perfect innings, striking out eight of the 10 batters he faced. The Owls’ defense was key to the victory as junior outfielders Dayne Wunderlich and Charlie Warren each threw out a UTSA player at home plate. Graham said the pitching and defense greatly impressed him during the game.
“We had a great defensive game, probably our best defensive game of the year by far,” Graham said. “Both pitchers, and especially Glenn Otto, were really magnificent. We threw two runners out at home plate, so we had really great plays and reliability.”
The lone run scored when the Owls attempted a double steal with runners on first and second in the top of the fourth inning and the UTSA catcher rifled an errant throw past the infielders. The error allowed Chandler to run home and provide all of the offense the Owls needed.
Despite the victories, Graham said the series gives him some concern moving forward.
“[This series] tells us we better learn to hit better,” Graham said. “The pitching is going to be good enough and the defense is probably going to be good enough but we’re going to have to put the ball in play a little better.”
Looking ahead, the team is entering the most important part of its schedule: conference play. Winning the Conference USA tournament would guarantee the Owls a berth in the NCAA tournament for the 22nd consecutive year, and performing well in regular season play would give Rice a chance at an at-large bid even if it failed to win the conference tournament. Therefore, according to Graham, the upcoming Conference USA games are even more important than the rest of the schedule.
“[Our games] are all intense, but you know you’ve got to win in conference, so there’s even more intensity,” Graham said. “We don’t expend pitchers midweek when we’ve got conference games coming up.”
The Owls will play their first home Conference USA games of the season this weekend against Old Dominion University. The Gaels are the only team with a 3-0 record in Conference USA, and they hold a 16-4 record overall. According to Graham, they will provide a difficult test for Rice.
“Old Dominion’s got a high power rating and they’re 3-0,” Graham said. “They have a real good team, so we’ve got our work cut out for us this week.”
Rice will look to stop Old Dominion’s momentum and hand the Gaels their first Conference USA loss on Friday, March 25 at Reckling Park. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.