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The Final Kauntdown: Baseball provides reasons for optimism in season opening series

By Andrew Grottkau     2/20/17 10:09pm

Last week in the Thresher’s baseball insert, multiple Rice players said their goal this season is to qualify for the College World Series. After one series, the Owls’ record stands at 2-2. Despite the high expectations of the team heading into the season, the opening series was not a setback. Rather, the season-opening series revealed strong hitting from the bottom of the lineup and a deep pitching staff that can carry the Owls deep into the postseason.

Last week, the Thresher heralded the Owls’ experienced lineup. Early on, however, that lineup was not producing. In the first three games against the Longhorns, Rice put up just eight runs. On Sunday, the offense broke out of its slump, putting up seven runs in the game on nine hits. The Owls battered the Texas pitching staff that had held them in check to that point.

The production was no accident. Head coach Wayne Graham had been tinkering with the lineup throughout the series, and on Sunday, he found a combination that worked. Sophomores Robbie Lammons and Dominic DiCaprio had both had stellar weekends leading up to Sunday’s game. On Sunday, for the first time in the series, Graham put both DiCaprio and Lammons in the starting lineup. The move worked. The duo combined to reach base six times, going 4-for-8 with four RBIs to pace the back half of the order. Additionally, freshman Brad Gneiting shined in the series, going 5-for-15 with three RBIs while filling in for junior infielder Tristan Gray. Given that Gray is likely to return soon, Gneiting could end up playing most of the season at designated hitter.

With veterans like Gray, senior outfielder Charlie Warren, junior outfielder Ryan Chandler, sophomore shortstop Ford Proctor and junior infielder Dane Myers shoring up the top half of the order, this production from the back half of the lineup should be extremely valuable moving forward. The bottom of the lineup is normally the easy part of the order for pitchers to face, but if Rice can fill its lineup with quality hitters, the lineup could produce runs in bulk.

While the Thresher praised the offense in the season preview, we were more skeptical about the pitching. So far, the Owls’ staff has been stellar. The team has an ERA of 3.66, on par with last year’s mark. Junior Dane Myers and sophomore Zach Esquivel had outstanding starts, each throwing six or more innings and giving up two or fewer runs. Junior Ricardo Salinas gave up just two runs through five innings, but he ran into trouble in the sixth and came out of the game with two runners on base. Unfortunately, both of those runners came around to score, leaving him with 5.1 innings pitched and four earned runs. On paper, his stats make his performance look far worse than it was. While he had some command issues, he managed to strike out five batters and left with his team down by just one.

A few relievers stood out as well. Junior pitcher Glenn Otto, tabbed as the Conference USA Preseason Pitcher of the Year, struck out two in a 1-2-3 inning in his return from injury. Freshman pitcher Roel Garcia pitched three innings and struck out four batters, giving up a single run on a solo home run. Finally, sophomore pitcher Evan Kravetz appeared in two games, pitching 4.1 innings and allowing no runs. He got the win on Friday night in the season opener.

The standout relief performances suggest that Rice’s pitching could be far deeper than it was last season when Otto logged long innings night after night. This weekend did not feature Rice’s complete pitching arsenal, either. Otto was limited in his return, junior starting pitcher Willy Amador is still sidelined with a broken nose and sophomore pitcher Jackson Parthasarathy missed the series as well. Once those pitchers return to full strength, Rice will have the depth it needs to keep its pitchers rested throughout the year.

With a deep pitching staff and a productive offense, Rice has the weapons it needs to have a very successful season. Rice will have to work extremely hard all season to qualify for a 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament. With the talent it flashed in its season-opening series, however, there is no reason to doubt this year’s team. The Owls once again look like they could be headed deep into the postseason. 

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