When the baseball season began, Rice understandably had high expectations. The Owls have reached the NCAA tournament in 22 consecutive seasons and finished one run shy of the conference title last year. A month into the season, the team is 6-16. It is nowhere near the national powerhouse we have come to expect. The reason for the decline is simple: The Owls’ pitching has failed them.
Unfortunately for Rice, nothing can derail a season quite like a breakdown in pitching. Last Thursday night, the Owls had a solid offensive performance, scoring five runs in the first three innings and six runs overall. The Owls, however, never led. Stanford University treated the Rice pitchers like pitching machines, scoring 15 runs in the first four innings and winning 16-6. In the fourth inning, Stanford’s fifth hitter already had four at-bats. No matter how well the offense can perform, it cannot be expected to put up double-digit runs to keep up with poor pitching performances.
Coming into the season, Rice had question marks in its rotation. The mainstays from last year, juniors Willy Amador and Ricardo Salinas, were expected to be consistent contributors. Junior Glenn Otto was supposed to pitch long innings in relief. Instead, this trio has been either injured or inconsistent throughout the early season. Amador pitched well against Sam Houston State University on Tuesday, but before that start, his ERA was 14.73. Salinas has had success in early innings, but has tended to fade as he gets deep into his outings. Otto began the season sidelined with an injury and has been used sparingly since. The trio has not been nearly good enough to match preseason expectations.
Outside of the returning pitchers, Rice has had to rely on freshman Matt Canterino and sophomore Zach Esquivel. While these pitchers have performed well at times, they have also been inconsistent, which is to be expected of first-time college pitchers. That said, those two pitchers and junior Dane Myers each have quality ERAs of 3.04 or less.
The bullpen has been far worse than the starters. Rice is just 5-4 when ahead after six innings because its relievers have struggled to hold leads. The Owls already have more losses when leading after six than they did all of last season — last year, the Owls were 31-2 in those situations. Of the nine primary relievers who have appeared in more than two games, only three have ERAs under 6.55. Considering that a trustworthy pitcher should have an ERA of about 4.00 or less, the bullpen’s performance is alarmingly bad. No matter how well the starters perform, a bad bullpen will prevent the Owls from holding a lead and winning games.
Just 22 games into the season, the Owls have given up eight or more runs seven times. Last season, behind star pitchers Jon Duplantier and Blake Fox, the Owls gave up that many runs just 12 times in 62 games. Before the season, Wayne Graham said he cares much more about strong pitching than a strong lineup. Rice has a solid lineup, certainly better than last year. But its pitching has taken such a sharp nosedive that it barely matters. Sure, there will be times when the lineup explodes and carries the team to victory, as it did in a 15-5 beatdown of Southeastern Louisiana University. But more often than not, the pitching will collapse and ruin a good offensive performance like in the 6-5 loss to Old Dominion University last weekend.
Of course, the team’s struggles cannot be blamed exclusively on the pitching. Rice’s pitchers fared far better this past weekend against Old Dominion, but the offense failed to score enough in 3-2 and 2-0 defeats. Additionally, the Owls’ defense has been atrocious. Rice has allowed 34 unearned runs in 22 games. Its opponents have allowed just five. These runs have come as a product of 37 errors and an abysmal .951 fielding percentage. Ultimately, it is difficult for a pitcher to play with confidence when he cannot trust his defense to get outs.
Regardless of the cause of Rice’s struggles, it will take an immense turnaround for the Owls to extend their streak of 22 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Rice will likely have to win the Conference USA tournament if it hopes to qualify for the postseason; right now, it has an uphill battle to even qualify for the C-USA tournament after an 0-3 start to conference play. In all likelihood, for the first time since 1994, Rice is in the midst of a season that will not end with an NCAA tournament appearance.