At the beginning of the season, the Rice baseball team looked like it was destined for an unspectacular year. After losing all three games at the Shriners College Classic, the Owls’ record was 3-5. Five games later, they remained just 6-7 after a series-opening loss to East Carolina University. Now, however, Rice is ranked No. 19 in the country by Baseball America and holds a 20-11 record after going 14-4 in their last 18 games.

The transition has been startling. The reasons for the dramatic change, though, are not. Since that loss to East Carolina 18 games ago, Rice has allowed its opponents to score more than three runs only four times. Their regular starting pitchers, senior Blake Fox, junior Jon Duplantier, sophomore Willy Amador and sophomore Ricardo Salinas, each have earned run averages below 4.00 on the season. The team ERA has dipped from 3.51 to an impressive 2.96 over that span.

The improvement in pitching has greatly aided the Owls. Through 31 games, Rice has scored two runs or fewer 12 times. In the 19 games the Owls have mustered three or more runs, however, they are 18-1 with the only loss coming against current No. 7 Texas Christian University. This speaks to the pitching staff’s prowess. To put this stat in context, a pitcher is credited with a quality start when he gives up three runs or fewer in six or more innings pitched. If a pitcher allows three runs against Rice, however, that pitcher’s team has lost the game almost every single time because the Owls’ pitching staff has given up even fewer runs.

While the pitching has carried the team, the offense has managed to increase its production as well. The team has seen a modest increase in scoring over the last 18 games, averaging 4.33 runs per game over that span compared to 3.92 runs per game in the first 13 games. Early in the season, however, many of those runs were concentrated into just a few games. In fact, in its first 13 games, the Owls scored two runs or fewer seven times — more than half of their games. Since then, Rice has scored fewer than three runs in only five of their 18 games.

Part of the reason for the uptick in offensive production has been a more even distribution of hitting. Through 12 games, six of the players who had started at least half of the team’s games had batting averages of .231 or below. Now, only three regular starters have averages below that threshold. That number will increase to four now that junior outfielder Charlie Warren is out with an injury, but the Owls have still managed to win three out of four games in his absence thus far.

The final aspect of the game in which Rice has shown notable improvement is defense. Early in the season, the Owls struggled to make plays in the field. In their first 13 games, Rice committed 22 errors and allowed 14 runs off of those errors. Those runs accounted for one-fifth of the runs Rice had allowed to that point in the season. Since then, the Owls have committed just 15 errors and have allowed nine runs off of those errors. The defensive performance has helped fortify the already strong pitching that drives the team.

While the Owls can look back on the last 18 games and point to numerous areas in which they have improved, they must finish the season strong if they hope to succeed. Their streak of 20 consecutive conference championships is in jeopardy this season as Rice’s 9-3 Conference USA record puts them in a tie with Florida Atlantic University for second, two games behind the conference-leading University of Southern Mississippi. The Owls must also continue winning to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. They are currently projected as a No. 2 seed in the tournament by Baseball America, but they must perform well for the rest of the year if they wish to prove those projections correct.

Rice will continue its season with a weekend series against conference rival Western Kentucky University beginning Friday night. The game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Reckling Park.