Heading into the season, Rice baseball head coach Wayne Graham knew he was going to have to replace talent on the pitching staff. Jon Duplantier and Blake Fox, Rice’s top two starters from the previous year, had moved on to professional baseball. Junior pitchers Glenn Otto and Willy Amador were nursing injuries. Graham recognized he would need to turn to players with less experience and more question marks. Before the season, when asked if any freshman could contribute, Graham pointed to a player in the outfield wearing jersey No. 40.

“[Matt] Canterino can be a plus pitcher,” Graham said. “He didn’t pitch in the fall so he has to get his control back. But his stuff is very good.”

Canterino, a freshman pitcher, has indeed played a big role on the team this season. He has now started eight games and has given up just 18 earned runs in 44.2 innings for an ERA of 3.63, third best on the team. His .181 opponent batting average and 58 strikeouts are the best marks on the team by wide margins. While most freshman pitchers struggle to transition from high school to college baseball due to the big jump in the hitters’ talent level, Canterino has reversed this trend. He said the main reason he has been able to succeed at the college level is his ability to avoid mistakes.

“Coming out of high school, if you were good, you could get away with some mistakes,” Canterino said. “In college that’s not the case. It’s about fixing those mistakes and trying to be more fine with your pitches and really trusting that you can get these hitters out.”

At first expected to play a secondary role behind primary starters junior Dane Myers, junior Ricardo Salinas and junior Willy Amador, Canterino burst onto the scene in early March. He struck out 10 batters in three consecutive starts against Pepperdine University, Stanford University and Old Dominion University. In doing so, he became the first Rice pitcher since the 2003 national championship season to accomplish that feat. In the win over No. 11 Stanford, Canterino went seven innings and allowed just two hits and no runs in a 4-0 win on his way to winning Conference USA Pitcher of the Week.

“That was a real fun game because it was a really well-rounded game,” Canterino said. “Our defense played solid, our offense got timely hits and I was fortunate enough to have my pitches work and be able to throw strikes and get a team win.”

Canterino’s past four starts have each come in the opening game of a weekend series, which typically takes place on a Friday night. He has been Graham’s go-to pitcher when trying to get Rice off to a positive start in a three-game set. While he said he is happy to start the Friday night games, he said he does not read too much into the coaching staff’s decision to trust him with the series-opening role.

“It means [the coaches] think I can help the team win,” Canterino said. “I’ve got to do my job whatever night it may be, and right now it happens to be Friday night.”

While Canterino has had a stellar freshman year, the team is in the midst of a down season with a record of 11-23 as of Monday. But the losses, according to Canterino, have not significantly dampened the mood of the team.

“People see our record and think we’re struggling, but when you look at our team and you see the chemistry that we have, the energy in the clubhouse is good,” Canterino said. “We’re really not that far off from being successful.”

The Owls will have a chance to get some statement wins this weekend when the conference leader, the University of Southern Mississippi, comes to Reckling Park for a three game series. The first game of the series is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Friday.