Owls sweep Marshall, shut out against Louisiana
Even with three or four freshmen regularly in the starting lineup for Head Coach Wayne Graham, things are starting to look awfully similar to this same time in 2010 for the Rice Owls baseball team. Flash back a year ago, when Rice (21-11, 4-2 C-USA) opened the Conference-USA schedule by dropping two of three to the Memphis Tigers to fall to just 13-12 on the season. The national media was down on Rice, with the pitching struggling and the team's conference championship streak looking like it would be in jeopardy.
Now back to the present. The non-conference slate was an inconsistent one for Rice, and after falling in their conference opener to University of Central Florida (20-9, 2-4 C-USA), the Owls stood last week at just 16-11 and out of the Baseball America top 25 rankings. But it was just this time a year ago that the team took off, sweeping their next series and finishing the year by going 27-11 the rest of the way and earning a trip to the postseason. And following two midweek wins last week, Rice hosted Marshall University (10-17, 1-5 C-USA) over the weekend, hoping to replicate their results from a season ago.
Freshman Austin Kubitza, the regular Friday night starter for the Owls, looked to regain his form in the series opener after a strong but not spectacular start last week against the Knights. Behind a strong home crowd, Kubitza was back to his form against the Thundering Herd, allowing just three hits without a runner getting past second base over the first five innings. Already up 1-0, the Owls broke the game open in the fifth inning when a two-run double by junior designated hitter Anthony Rendon with the bases loaded plated two with just one out in the inning. Rice added two more in the inning on RBI from freshman third baseman Shane Hoelscher and junior catcher Craig Manuel, taking a 6-0 lead into the later innings. With a comfortable cushion, Kubitza seemed to only get stronger as the game progressed into the later innings. After a routine seventh inning, Kubitza struck out the side in his final frame of work, leaving the game after allowing four hits and just one walk and striking out six in another brilliant performance.
"I was just able to throw my slider for strikes," Kubitza said comparing his Friday night start with the UCF outing. "The fastball was good. I struggled a little bit with the command, but once that was going I felt great today." Rendon finished four for four on the night with a walk and 5 RBI, pacing the offense in the 9-0 blowout for Rice.
Senior Abe Gonzales got the start on Saturday afternoon, but he was not able to match the masterful outing put on from Kubitza the night before. Gonzales started struggling in the third inning as Marshall took a 3-2 lead in the game. Gonzales was taken out after the frustrating inning in which he was not hit particularly hard, but Marshall found gaps in the defense. Sophomore reliever Tyler Duffey would come on in relief and take the game to the sixth inning before Marshall tacked on two more to go ahead 5-2. The Owls responded quickly when Hoelscher's first career home run, a clutch three-run shot to left field, tied the game at five apiece. The Owls were excited, but a run by Marshall in the top of the seventh put Rice back on its heels in the late innings.
Rice fought back in the eighth as junior center fielder Michael Fuda's leadoff double got the team off to a good start. Marshall walked Rendon, and after a sacrifice bunt from Hoelscher, it was sophomore right fielder Ryan Lewis who was given the free pass to load the bases with one out. The walk brought up sophomore first baseman J.T. Chargois. Chargois drove a double to left center that brought in all three runs and put Rice up 8-6 late in the game. He would come around to score on a wild pitch, and senior pitcher Tony Cingrani worked a routine ninth for the save and the 9-6 Rice win.
Due to the travel plans for the Thundering Herd, the Sunday finale was a 10 a.m. start. And through two innings it looked as if the Owls were still asleep, as they did not get a hit and allowed two quick runs on errors to go down 2-0. The wake up call came courtesy of Fuda in the third, who delivered the first big hit of the game for the Owls, driving in two with a single to tie the game. One wild pitch later, Chargois came across to give Rice the 3-2 lead through three innings. Junior starter Matthew Reckling appeared to settle down after the third inning, as he found a rhythm and kept Marshall hitters off guard with his curveball. Reckling worked six innings, fanning eight while allowing only four hits and two unearned runs. Rice took a 4-2 lead into the eighth, when Cingrani ran into some trouble to start the inning off. After back-to-back singles and a balk call, Marshall singled up the middle with one out to tie the game 4-4, before Cingrani clamped down to get the final two outs in the inning. Rice could not score in the last two innings, and the game went into extra frames.
Graham brought on sophomore pitcher Tyler Spurlin in the 10th, and he worked a routine inning. After Rendon was handed his fourth walk of the game and seventh of the series, it was up to Hoelscher to protect his designated hitter and make Marshall pay for putting the man on first. And after his first career home run just the day before, Hoelscher topped that effort with a double into the corner in right field. Rendon headed for third and was sent home as the potential winning run. The ball was bobbled briefly in the corner, and Rendon was able to score without a play at the plate for the walk-off win and the series sweep of Marshall. The win put Rice at 21-11 overall and 4-2 in the conference, riding a 5-game win streak into the week.
"[This win] definitely keeps us rolling. We're now 5-0 on the week, and we're well on our way to reaching our goal," Hoelscher said after his first career walk-off hit to secure the sweep. "After going 1-2 against UCF, we really want to just get back on track in conference."
The Owls played the University of Louisiana-Lafayette (17-11), on Tuesday night. Sophomore pitcher Jeremy Fant got the start as Graham used the bullpen by committee to hold Louisiana to only two runs for the entire game. However, the unfortunate storyline of the night for Rice was an inept offense with runners on base, as the team stranded a Rice all-time record 18 runners in the game and did not score, falling 2-0 to Louisiana and dropping to 21-12 on the season.
The Owls take to the road for the first time in conference play this year, as the first of three games with East Carolina University (21-8, 3-3 C-USA) takes place this evening.
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