After sweep of Hawaii, baseball falls at Minute Maid
With the students away on spring break, the Rice baseball team took a vacation of its own- the Owls headed out to Hawaii for a four-game set against the University of Hawaii Rainbows.
Game one on Feb. 22 proved to be a historic one in the Wayne Graham era, as the Owls held their hosts scoreless for nearly two full games before earning an exhaustive 2-0 win in 17 innings. Junior Austin Kubitza, sophomore Zech Lemond, sophomore Evan Rutter and junior John Simms combined for 23 strikeouts in the game, the longest amount in Head Coach Wayne Graham's 21-year career at Rice. Sophomore Ford Stainback and Senior Geoff Perrott delivered the run-scoring hits after senior Michael Ratterree led off the inning with a double.
The Owls continued their strong pitching for the rest of the weekend. On Saturday, sophomore Jordan Stephens pitched his first career complete game, notching a career-high 10 strikeouts The Owls rallied for two runs in the eighth inning for a 3-1 victory. Rice rallied from behind on Sunday, after junior Keenan Cook tied the ballgame with a base hit in the ninth as the Owls were down to their last strike. The team added two more runs on the inning after base hits from junior Shane Hoelscher and senior Christian Stringer put Rice in a position to score on a walk and a hit batter. With a total of three runs in the ninth, Rice escaped with a 7-5 victory and their third win in a row. Rice completed the sweep on Monday, with Simms and freshman Blake Fox combining to blank the Rainbows, and junior Michael Aquino driving in three runs in a 5-0 win. In the 44 innings of play over the weekend, Rice pitching posted a composite 1.02 ERA, holding the Rainbows to a miniscule .189 batting average in the sweep.
But the Owls were in for a rude awakening from paradise, returning to action last weekend for three games in the Astros Foundation Classic at Minute Maid Park.
The tournament's headlining game took place last Friday night when Rice took on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the No. 1 team in the country, in a game that lived up to the hype.
The Owls struck first with a run in the second inning after Aquino led off the frame with a triple and scored on a sacrifice bunt. Kubitza was again brilliant early on, holding the nation's top team to just two hits through the first six innings. The Tar Heels got on the board in the seventh, scoring on a wild pitch after leading off with back to back singles. Kubitza left after 6 2/3 innings, surrendering just four hits while striking out nine. But after leaving runners stranded in the seventh and eighth innings, the Owls fell behind late when the Tar Heels scored again on a wild pitch, this time in the ninth off of Lemond. Rice went down quietly in the ninth, dropping the first game of the weekend and squandering a major opportunity to knock off one of the country's best.
After the disappointing finish Friday, things only got worse for Rice over the weekend. A combination of struggling defensive play and a sputtering offense led to a pair of ugly results against in-state rivals. The Owls fell behind Saturday against Texas A&M University, with the Aggies scoring three runs in each of the first two innings off of Stephens, two of which were unearned. Aquino split the deficit with a three-run home run in the third inning, already his fourth homer of the season. But the Aggies extended their lead with two more runs in the sixth, and Rice managed just two hits over the final five innings, falling by an 8-3 final.
In the Sunday finale against Baylor University, things fell apart for Rice in the sixth inning due to more struggles defensively. Already down 3-0, an error on the infield extended the inning for the Bears, who took advantage of the opportunity with a three-run home run to go up 6-0. Rice added a late home run from Skyler Ewing but fell by a final of 9-2 to conclude what was a very disappointing weekend. The 0-3 appearance at Minute Maid marks the first time that the Owls went winless since the tournament was first held in 2001. Rice hit just .202 that weekend, scoring only six runs in the team's first three-game losing streak in almost three seasons.
After falling six spots to No. 19 in the Baseball America poll, Rice responded nicely with a 1-0 win over visiting California on Monday night. Junior Chase McDowell was brilliant on the hill, tossing a complete game shutout to record his second win of the season. But even with McDowell's mastery, the Owls kept the game dramatic, waiting until the bottom of the ninth to deliver the first run of the ballgame. After one-out base hits from Perrott and freshman Leon Byrd, Stainback knocked a base hit through the right side to plate pinch-runner sophomore John Williamson, securing the game in walk-off fashion and rewarding McDowell for his performance.
The Owls head to Miami, this weekend for a three-game set with Florida International University before returning to Reckling Park for a midweek pair against Louisiana Tech University next week.
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