Ricardo Salinas’ father had no experience playing baseball, but he knew his son had the talent. Salinas started playing baseball with his brother at the age of four. Taught by his father, who learned the game by reading articles and books, Salinas flourished as a three-sport athlete, juggling football, basketball and baseball before his time at Rice. Now, he is a pivotal piece of the Owls’ pitching rotation.

Last season, Salinas solidified his spot as a starter, starting 14 of the 15 games in which he pitched. Salinas pitched at least 7.0 innings in seven games and averaged 5.2 innings per outing throughout the season. Even more impressive was Salinas’ performance during those games, dropping his season-long ERA to 3.39 and tallying a 9-2 record. During a March 13 game against No. 16 East Carolina University, he tallied 8.0 shutout innings and was named Conference USA Pitcher of the Week.

Salinas entered Rice as the 191st-ranked prep senior in the nation and the 16th-ranked senior in Texas by PerfectGame.org, a prominent baseball recruiting site. He featured in a 2014 recruiting class which included junior infielder Tristan Gray, junior outfielder Ryan Chandler and junior right-handed pitcher Glenn Otto, among others.

Salinas picked Rice without much hesitation. According to Salinas, Rice is the only place he ever wanted to play.

“I had a chance to go to a bunch of schools, but I fell in love with Rice when I came on campus.,” Salinas said. “I live 30 minutes from here. My parents and grandparents can come and watch me play. This is the only school I looked at. ”

Just as Salinas fell in love with Rice, the Owls’ coaching staff valued their North Shore recruit. During his freshman year, Salinas pitched the second most innings of any Owls’ freshman behind Otto, notching five starts and 11 relief appearances. He finished his freshman season with a 3-2 record, posting a 4.65 earned run average and totaling 22 strikeouts.

Salinas said the Rice coaching staff accelerated his development.

“In high school, I did not have the pitches I have now,” Salinas said. “Now, it’s one of my best pitches. I give credit to coach Graham for preaching the spike curveball. I no longer rely on my fastball too heavily, and I can use all the pitches in my arsenal.”

Despite his improved pitch arsenal, Salinas said he was not pleased with his overall consistency on the mound last season.

“If I could improve one part of my game it would be consistency throughout the entire year,” Salinas said. “Last season, I had a couple of bad starts and during most games I had a few poor innings. If I can cut those out, it will really improve my season.”

C-USA coaches have already expressed their belief in Salinas and his development. Salinas is a preseason All-Conference USA selection, joining teammates Otto, sophomore shortstop Ford Proctor, and senior outfielder Charlie Warren. He was also named a Preseason Third Team All-American by the National College Baseball Writers’ Association.

Salinas and his teammates are optimistic heading into the year. The C-USA coaches picked Rice to win the regular season title after they fell just two wins short last year. In fact, Salinas said he believes the Owls can go even further and play in the College World Series for the first time since 2008.

“I think we can go to Omaha and win it all,” Salinas said. “If the pieces fall together we are going to do something big. Our hitting has improved tremendously from last year. Our pitching is not there yet but we have the whole season. It all depends on who gets hot at the right time.”

Increased production from one of the Owls’ best pitchers would greatly boost Rice’s prospects heading into the postseason. Salinas said he recognizes the burden to improve and relishes every opportunity on the field.

“As an individual, I want to improve in every stat category from last year and get double digit wins,” Salinas said. “Coach Graham told me that if this team didn’t have me, we wouldn’t go anywhere. I want to have fun on the field and prove that this team can be successful.”