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Baseball wins first series against Stanford since '03 championship

By Ryan Glassman     2/20/13 6:00pm

During the Wayne Graham era, the series history between Rice University and Stanford University represents a tale of two stories, depending on whom you ask.

Rice fans will take you back to June 23, 2003, the greatest day in the history of Rice athletics. On the sport's grandest stage, Rice defeated Stanford in the clinching game of the College World Series by a record-breaking 12-run margin, earning the only national title in any sport in the school's history.

But fans of the Cardinal would prefer to discuss the more recent history between the two teams, beginning with a Stanford sweep of the Owls to open the 2010 season. Since the Owls defeated Stanford to win the title back in 2003, they are just 2-7 overall against the Cardinal, including series losses in each of the past three seasons.

The 2013 Rice baseball team was provided the opportunity to reverse the recent narrative of Stanford success as the two high-profile programs opened the latest season of college baseball at Reckling Park last Friday. The season opener featured a matchup of two of the nation's best arms; as Cardinal ace and potential No. 1 draft pick Mark Appel went head-to-head with Rice's Austin Kubitza, the Preseason Conference USA Pitcher of the Year.

For the second season in a row, the Owls struck early against the hard-throwing Appel for the first runs of the ballgame. After senior Christian Stringer led off the second inning with a walk, junior Shane Hoelscher doubled to the gap in right center to put two runners in scoring position with no outs. Junior Keenan Cook followed up with a sacrifice fly to plate Stringer, and sophomore Skyler Ewing drove in Hoelscher with a single to put the Owls up 2-0.

Rice added three unearned runs in the fifth, but Kubitza hardly needed the help against the ninth-ranked Cardinal. Kubitza was not perfect in his six innings of work, surrendering four hits and walking four batters in his outing, but Head Coach Wayne Graham's staff ace was consistently able to work out of trouble to keep the score in favor of the Owls. In the top of the sixth, with two runners on base and two outs, Kubitza struck out Stanford catcher Wayne Taylor for his 12th strikeout of the evening, setting a career high in outdueling one of the country's best pitchers. Kubitza recorded inning-ending strikeouts with runners on base in each of his last three innings of work before handing the ball off to sophomore Zech Lemond for the final three frames. Lemond held Stanford to one run over the last three innings, as Rice took the season opener by a 5-1 final score. 

"Playing against a team like Stanford, there's always a rivalry there," Kubitza said of the importance of the opening night win. "I'm just happy we got the win and that we can build off of it for [the next game]."

Rice got another strong outing Saturday afternoon, from sophomore Jordan Stephens, but was unable to produce enough offense in a 3-2 defeat that evened up the series. Stephens allowed three runs while pitching into the eighth inning, but other than a pair of solo home runs from junior Michael Aquino, the Owls were held without an extra base hit in defeat.

The Saturday loss set up for a series-deciding Sunday finale, the type of game both teams will look back on late in the year as a significant part of their postseason resumes. Graham sent junior John Simms to the hill. Simms is a pitcher with experience making starts against some of Rice's toughest opponents over the years. And in the rubber match against a top-10 team, Simms put forth the strongest outing of his career.

Rice opened the scoring in the bottom of the first inning when each of its first three batters reached base to set the table for the middle of the order. After an Aquino groundout brought in the first run, Hoelscher delivered with a single up the middle to plate two more, giving Rice an early 3-0 advantage. And as was the case with Kubitza on Friday night, Simms did not need any more help from his teammates' bats.

Simms held Stanford not only scoreless, but also without a single hit, through the first seven innings of the game. With a shot at the school's eighth no-hitter in sight, Simms took the mound for the eigth inning with Rice still ahead 3-0. But the junior surrendered a base hit to the leadoff batter and, after retiring the next batter, left to a raucous ovation after pitching 7 1/3 scoreless innings of one-hit ball. Lemond came on in relief, earning his second save of the weekend, and behind the arm of Simms as well as a 4-for-4 night from Hoelscher, Rice took the rubber match with Stanford, its first series win over the Cardinal since winning the national title in 2003. The Owls' pitchers were masterful all weekend, holding Stanford's potent offense to just 15 hits in 27 innings, a .167 batting average at the plate. 

The Owls moved up to No. 13 in the Baseball America polls Monday but were unable to replicate their strong pitching from the Stanford series in a home game against Dallas Baptist University Tuesday night. Rice fell behind 4-0 early and was unable to pull off a late rally. The Owls lost by a final score of 6-4. Rice pitchers gave out nine free passes (four walks, five hit batters), and the offense matched its opponent in hits but left seven men on base in the loss.

This weekend, the Owls kick off their spring break week with a trip to paradise, traveling west for a four-game series with the University of Hawaii, Manoa. The Rainbows got off to an 0-4 start last weekend, when they were swept at home by No. 14 University of Oregon in a series in which they were outscored 21-11. Hawaii finished 30-25 last season and last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2010.

Kubitza and Stephens will start in the first two games of the series for Rice, but the starters for the rest of the series are still up in the air. Player to watch will be freshman Kevin McCanna, one of the bright spots on the mound in Tuesday's loss. After the highly touted freshman's debut was postponed due to an arm injury, McCanna threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings against Dallas Baptist, recording two strikeouts without surrendering a hit or walk. McCanna is likely to see more innings against Hawaii. .and has a shot to make his debut this weekend.  

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