Simms fans 11 at Reckling against fifth-ranked Aggies
After stranding a school-record 18 runners on base in a midweek loss to Louisiana-Lafayette (19-13), the Owls (24-13, 6-3 C-USA) faced another tough task in the pitching rotation for the Pirates. Entering the weekend series, East Carolina University (22-11, 4-5 C-USA) boasted the best team Earned Run Average in the conference and a top-three staff overall ERA in the country. To combat the ECU arms on Friday night was Austin Kubitza, the freshman whose success has begun to garner attention on the national level.
After Rice got out to a quick 1-0 lead on an RBI single from sophomore second baseman Michael Ratterree, Kubitza took the hill with dominance from the game's outset. Through just the first five innings, he held ECU to a single hit and struck out a career-high eleven batters to keep the Owls ahead in the game. But with the Rice bats frustrated by ECU's Seth Maness, Kubitza ran into trouble in the sixth after a two-out single and consecutive walks were followed by an unearned run to tie the game, 1-1. Kubitza left after five and two-thirds innings, allowing just two hits while recording 11 strikeouts in yet another eye-opening performance for the freshman ace. Senior Tony Cingrani, the flamethrowing left-hander came in to strand three runners, recording the inning's final out as the game went to the seventh in a tie.
Sophomore right fielder Ryan Lewis led off the next inning with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by freshman left fielder Keenan Cook. Following a strikeout and a walk issued to junior designated hitter Anthony Rendon, who leads the NCAA in the category by a sizable margin, junior center fielder Michael Fuda overcame a day of frustrations at the plate with the biggest hit of the day. His single to right field plated Lewis to give Rice the 2-1 lead before inning's end, leaving the series opener in the hands of Cingrani.
In relief of Kubitza, the veteran Cingrani was just as dominant as his freshman predecessor, using a healthy dose of fastballs to silence the ECU bats. After a routine seventh inning, Cingrani struck out the side in the eighth to earn a save situation in the bottom of the ninth with Rice still up by a 2-1 margin. After retiring the first two batters in the ninth, Cingrani allowed back-to-back singles to put the tying run 90 feet away with two outs. But true to the theme of the game, the lefty buckled down to retire the final batter by means of the strikeout to preserve the 2-1 victory for Head Coach Wayne Graham and the Owls. With seven strikeouts in three and one-third innings, Cingrani combined with Kubitza for a team season-high 18 Ks on what was a night of superb pitching performances. Cook and junior catcher Craig Manuel paced the offense with two hits apiece, leading Rice to the win in the weekend's first game.
On Saturday afternoon it was the Pirates who struck first, getting to junior starter Matthew Reckling in the fourth after three quiet innings. Reckling, who walked six in three and two-thirds innings of work, constantly worked out of trouble in the first three innings before ECU scored on an error and a walk with the bases loaded. ECU would add another off of sophomore reliever Tyler Spurlin in the fifth to go up 3-0 entering the seventh inning. Manuel opened the scoring for Rice in the inning, plating sophomore first baseman J.T. Chargois after he and Ratterree scattered base hits to get in scoring position. After the Owls were retired, junior reliever Taylor Wall continued his strong relief outing by retiring ECU quietly in the seventh, with Rice down 3-1 late. In need of a rally, freshman shortstop Derek Hamilton led Rice off with a single before Cook's base hit put two Owls on with one out. Up to bat was Chargois, the sophomore whose clutch hitting was crucial in the sweep of Marshall two weeks ago. And once again, Chargois' delivered with a late game opportunistic hit, this time with a double to score both Hamilton and Cook and tie the game. The Pirates would retire the next two Owls to the plate, but entering the ninth the two C-USA rivals were deadlocked at 3-3.
After a scoreless ninth, it was again Cook reaching base to begin a Rice rally. After he reached on an error to start the 10th inning, Chargois and Rendon both drew walks to load the bases with no outs. Ratterree, hitting cleanup, also worked a walk to bring in the go-ahead run without the benefit of a hit. Still, with no outs, Manuel drove a single to centerfield to put Rice up 5-3, before ECU worked out of the jam without further damage. Working in relief of Wall, who allowed just two hits in three innings of work, was the sophomore Tyler Duffey. Duffey allowed a hit, but utilized back-to-back strikeouts to seal up the game and earn the win, with Rice clinching the weekend series on the road in North Carolina.
The series finale and getaway day was not as pretty for Rice, who fell behind 3-0 in the first after two hits off of senior pitcher Abe Gonzales and an error by the defense scored three unearned runs for the Pirates. Sophomore catcher Geoff Perrott's leadoff double in the third sparked two runs for Rice, one unearned and one on a Rendon RBI single, but ECU went up 4-2 on a run-scoring double in the fourth. The Rice bats would go down quietly, delivering three hits over the final six innings, as Gonzales worked into the seventh before the Pirates went up 5-2 with a bases loaded walk in the seventh. Freshman third baseman Shane Hoelscher's solo home run would be one of the few bright spots on the afternoon as the Owls fell 7-3 on four unearned runs, losing the series' last game but still taking two of three in Greenville.
After capturing their second straight conference series to jump to 6-3 on the year in the C-USA, the Owls played host to instate rival and No. 5 Texas A&M on Tuesday night. And just as one freshman starter delivered for Graham with an impeccable performance when these two teams met at the Houston College Classic in March, it was another young arm getting the call for the weekday matchup. Freshman John Simms, the opening day starter back in February, made a strong case for a weekend starting spot with an absolutely stellar outing in front of a near capacity crowd at Reckling Park.
After one-and-a-half scoreless innings, Ratterree reached on an infield single to start the second and advanced a base on an A&M throwing error. Two groundballs later, Ratterree came in to score the game's first run, which would be all that Simms would need on the night. After the first inning, Simms faced the minimum 18 batters over the next six frames, allowing just one hit and erasing that runner with a double play. Keeping the Aggies out of sync by mixing the fastball with his slider, Simms struck out 10 in the first seven innings, issuing zero walks and allowing only two hits. He would add another strikeout in the eighth but was removed from the game after seven and two-thirds innings with a runner on. Cingrani came on and struck out the next batter to retire the side, keeping Rice up 1-0 heading to the bottom of the eighth. Rice would add another run in the ninth on a Cook RBI single that followed a Manuel double to put runners in scoring position. Cingrani would close the door in the ninth for the save to give Rice the 2-0 win over the Aggies behind the outstanding work from Simms.
"I just tried to go out there and attack the hitters. Don't mess around and go right at them with all of my stuff. That was pretty much the game plan," Simms said after setting a career high in strikeouts with one of the best pitching performances of the year for Rice. "I haven't had my best slider up until about now, and it's been frustrating working through that. But it feels a lot better right now."
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