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Baseball sweeps opening conference series

By Michael Kidd     3/13/15 3:33pm

The No. 10 Rice baseball team traveled to Charlotte, NC this past weekend for the open- ing series of Conference USA play against the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Rice, the preseason favorite to win the C-USA crown, won all three games of the series to complete the sweep and improve their record to 11-6 overall (3-0 C-USA).

Beginning on Friday afternoon, the Owls got off to a quick offensive start, recording two runs in the top of the first inning. A two- run double by senior catcher John Clay Reeves gave junior pitcher Kevin McCanna some in- surance early on. The 49ers did not get on the board until the sixth inning when an RBI groundout cut the deficit to 2-1. Shortly after, junior Matt Ditman came into the ballgame in a seventh inning bases-loaded jam, but got the third out with just one pitch to hold the lead. Rice tacked on two more runs in the fol- lowing inning and won by a final score of 4-2.

Saturday’s matchup featured two left- handed pitchers, with Rice starter Blake Fox looking for the 20th win of his collegiate ca- reer and the Owls searching for their 10th win of the season. An offensive outburst gave Rice

an 8-0 lead through five innings. Six of the runs came in the top of the fifth when Rice sent 10 men to the plate, and junior Leon Byrd hit his first home run of the year. Fox scattered eight hits and two walks through six innings and allowed just one run. Junior reliever Josh Pettitte then took over for Fox and struck out four batters in 1.1 innings of work. The Owls won by a final score of 10-3.

Sunday’s finale saw Rice jump to an early lead after an RBI groundout by Byrd gave Rice the 1-0 advantage. However, in the second inning, Charlotte scored two runs off junior starting pitcher Austin Orewiler to take the lead. The threat of more damage ended af- ter freshman Ryan Chandler gunned down a base runner at the plate. Trailing 3-1 through seven innings, Rice quickly got their first two men on to start the eighth inning, and back- to-back RBI singles by Byrd and Reeves later that inning tied the game at three apiece. A sacrifice fly by senior Kirby Taylor to follow gave Rice the 4-3 lead. Junior pitcher Jordan Stephens then entered in the eighth inning and struck out all three batters he faced in 10 pitches. He then came out in the ninth to earn his first save on the year and wrap up a 6-3 Owls victory.

Head Pitching Coach Patrick Hallmark said both Pettitte and Stephens have recov- ered from injuries impressively.

“The comeback is coming along real well, and they are right on track with where they want to be and where the medical profession- als said they could be,” Hallmark said. “They

are throwing their fastballs 90 miles per hour or harder with their powerful 80 miles per hour curves, so we’d like to see them get stronger and continue to pitch effectively.”

Pettitte, a sophomore transfer from Bay- lor University, developed a spike curveball this season. The pitch combines elements of a curveball and knuckleball. According to Pettitte, the pitch is the main reason he has struck out 53 percent of the batters he has seen this year.

“I feel great right now, and once I got to Rice I talked to Ditman and Orewiler and heard a lot about the spike curveball and wanted to try it out,” Pettitte said. “I’ve been getting outs by locating my fastball well and being able to throw the curveball that I picked up in any count I want.”

Prior to this weekend, the Owls were 8-6 through 14 games. Reeves said he feels there was not much worry in the clubhouse but rather a challenge to remain focused with a lighter Conference USA schedule coming up.

“There was hardly any worry in the club- house,” Reeves said. “We knew we had played all tough teams. Basically, the older guys and leadership were making sure the team under- stood that, once we get to conference, there is no reason in our minds [that] we can’t win every game.”

The Owls will compete in their second Conference USA series of the year when they host Louisiana Tech University this upcoming weekend. First pitch is scheduled for Friday at 6:30 p.m. 

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