Baseball has trouble with Top 10 west coast opponents
At 12-2 following a win against Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, the baseball team entered its toughest week of the season as the Owls played five games against Pac-12 foes ranked in the top 10. The slate began as Rice left the state of Texas for the first time this season, heading to Palo Alto to play second-ranked Stanford University in a three-game weekend series. After returning home, the Owls hosted 6th-ranked Arizona University for two midweek games at Reckling Park after splitting the series in Tucson last season.
Friday: Mark Appel dominant, Cardinal reserve hits walk-off
With Rice heading west to face their toughest test of the season, there was no shortage of headlines leading up to the weekend series between the Owls and the Cardinals. The Friday night pitching matchup featured a pair of childhood friends and teammates going head-to-head in the national spotlight, with each garnering attention for different reasons. For Rice senior starter Matthew Reckling, the start was his first Friday night appearance of the season, as Head Coach Wayne Graham elected to place the thriving Reckling at the front of the rotation for the weekend series. Stanford's starter, Mark Appel, is projected to be the top overall pick in the June MLB Draft, wielding an upper-90s fastball and hard slider among the best in the country.
In front of a near-capacity crowd at Sunken Diamond on Friday night, the two starting pitchers lived up to the expectations set in advance of college baseball's marquee weekend matchup. Rice got off to a hot start in the ballgame when Appel surrendered a two-run single to junior J.T. Chargois with two outs and the bases loaded in the first inning. But after the Cardinal tied the game with two runs in the third, Appel and Reckling held the opposing bats silent over the middle innings, although neither ace truly had their best stuff. Reckling left the game after six innings, allowing the two runs on just three hits while striking out seven. But as good as Reckling was in his first Friday night start against a top-five offense, Appel settled in for one of the best outings of his career, fanning a career-high 14 over nine innings. The game headed to extra innings tied 2-2.
After Rice was held scoreless in the top of the 10th, Stanford reserve outfielder Justin Ringo, making his first start of the season as a late addition to the lineup, drilled a first-pitch fastball over the fence in right field for a walk-off two-run home run, his very first hit of the season. The home run handed Rice their second walk-off defeat in the past three games, as the Cardinal took the series opener against the then fifth-ranked Owls.
Saturday: Kubitza struggles, Cardinal offense comes alive
Although Appel draws the majority of the national headlines for Stanford, the team's offense returns eight starters from a season ago and entered the weekend ranked fourth in Division 1 in runs per game. And with sophomore Austin Kubitza looking to get his season back on track in the Saturday afternoon game, the Cardinal showed why its bats make it a strong favorite to reach Omaha this season.
Rice once again scored first in the ballgame on a leadoff home run from junior Christian Stringer, but Stanford responded with three runs on three hits in the second inning to take an early lead. Senior Michael Fuda's opposite field two-run home run in the third drew the game even, but after a run in the bottom half of the third, Stanford knocked Kubitza out of the game on a three-run home run by outfielder Austin Wilson in the fourth to go up 7-3. Kubitza pitched three innings during the afternoon, allowing seven in his third consecutive start that did not last five innings. Stanford extended the lead to 9-3 through six and went on to win 11-6 on 14 hits to clinch the series against Rice for the third season in a row.
Sunday: Freshman Jordan Stephens outstanding, combines with Chargois for 1-0 shutout
Looking to leave California with some positive momentum heading into the Arizona series, Coach Graham sent freshman Jordan Stephens to the hill Sunday afternoon after Stephens' seven-inning, two-hit shutout of the University of Tennessee a week ago earned him Houston College Classic Most Outstanding Player honors. Facing a team scoring nearly nine runs a game, Stephens was superb once again on Sunday afternoon, pitching 6 2/3 innings of a three-hit ballgame to help the Owls salvage the end of the series. Stephens pitched effectively to contact, keeping the Stanford bats off-guard all afternoon while working with the slimmest of leads after senior Jeremy Rathjen's two-out RBI single drove home a run for Rice in a third inning extended by an error by the Stanford third baseman. The unearned run was all that Stephens needed, as he left the game with the 1-0 advantage intact as Chargois took over with a runner on base. Chargois retired the final seven batters of the game, allowing just one hit to clinch the Sunday afternoon win for Rice before the Owls headed home for their tilt with Arizona.
Tuesday: Benak shines again, offense jumps on Wildcats early
In the same way that Reckling emerged a season ago as one of the best pitchers on the staff, junior Andrew Benak has pitched as well as any mid-week starter in the country in the 2012 season, entering the game with a sub-1 ERA in three starts so far this year. Against an Arizona team that jumped Rice in the latest Baseball America poll to move up to no. 6 in the country (Rice currently stands at no. 8), Benak was superb once again, holding the Wildcats scoreless in 5 2/3 innings pitched on Tuesday in the series opener.
As for the offense, Rice got started early as Stringer, junior Michael Ratterree, Fuda, and Rathjen led off the first inning with consecutive hits to score two runs before an out was recorded. Chargois and sophomore Shane Hoelscher added RBIs in the first inning, and Rathjen homered in the third to put Rice up 5-0 through three. The lead held up all evening, as senior Taylor Wall and junior Tyler Duffey worked in relief to preserve the lead for the Owls after Benak's strong outing. The Owls won, 5-1.
"As long as I help the team win, then I'm happy," Benak said after the win, an effort that dropped his ERA to a team-low 0.78 in 23 innings pitched this season. "We won tonight, so I can't complain."
Wednesday: Arizona scores in late innings, Owls cannot mount rally
After a strong pitching performance on Tuesday, the Owls struggled on Wednesday against the Wildcats. Freshman Zech Lemond got off to a decent start as he allowed three runs in five innings. Wall could not hold the Wildcats back as he allowed two earned runs in 2 2/3 innings and ended up getting the loss.
Even with five runs, the Owls' offense struggled as no one got more than one hit. Fuda had the major hit of the night when he drove in two runs with a triple in the third inning. Otherwise, the bats could not come through in the clutch, which led to an 8-5 defeat to split the series with Arizona. The Owls are now 14-5 for it the season.
Rice is still at home this weekend as they faces Grambling State University tomorrow and on Sunday.
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Rice volleyball will get another shot at No. 2 University of Texas, Austin after they swept the University of San Diego on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Owls took all three sets against the Toreros by at least five points, en route to the second victory in an NCAA tournament game in program history. After the game, head coach Genny Volpe said she was confident from the get-go.
Most of the way through the 2019 season, I thought that Rice had some of the worst luck in all of college football. Through nine games, the Owls were winless, despite four one-score losses, including an eight-point loss to a Baylor University team that ended the season ranked in the top 15. All signs indicated that the Owls were much better than their 0-9 record and that their bad luck in close games was long overdue to flip. The Owls ended that season with a three-game winning streak, including two one-possession wins, appeared to confirm that theory.
On Saturday, Rice football came back from a ten point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Louisiana Tech University 35-31 on Senior Day. The come-from-behind win snapped a four-game losing streak and tallied the Owls fourth win of the season, moving their record to 4-8 and 3-5 in Conference-USA.