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The Final Kauntdown: Difficult start to the baseball season is no reason to panic

By Andrew Grottkau     3/7/16 9:37pm

The Rice baseball team entered the season with the hopes of reaching the College World Series. With a strong pitching rotation including All-American senior Blake Fox and a lineup featuring returning stars such as junior outfielders Charlie Warren and Dayne Wunderlich, the Owls appeared poised for a great season. Instead, through 12 games, Rice’s record stands at a mediocre 6-6.

It is difficult to pinpoint one reason for the team’s struggles thus far. The team has simply underperformed — the Owls have been average, but not great, in all phases of the game. The pitching has been effective, though not spectacular. Freshman Jackson Parthasarathy has impressed with a team-leading 0.84 earned run average through just over 10 innings of work. Junior Jon Duplantier has also started the season well, earning the Conference USA Pitcher of the Week award this week after striking out 14 against the University of Central Florida on Friday night. Although Fox has a disappointing 0-3 record, he has pitched through the seventh inning in each of his last two starts and has given up a total of only five earned runs in that span.

While the Owls’ team ERA is an impressive 3.51, their opponents are scoring an average of five runs per game. The discrepancy between the team’s ERA and runs allowed points to an often overlooked area in which the team has particularly struggled: fielding. Rice has committed 21 errors this season, three times the total of its opponents. These errors have led to 14 unearned runs — nearly a quarter of the 60 runs the Owls have allowed this season. Considering opponents are averaging five runs per game against the Owls, this means Rice’s errors have accounted for nearly three games’ worth of runs for their opponents.

Rice, on the other hand, has scored just 50 runs this season. Thus far, scoring has been a perfect indicator of the Owls’ success. Rice is 0-6 when scoring two runs or fewer and 6-0 when scoring three runs or more. Through 12 games, the Owls are averaging 4.3 runs per game on offense with a team batting average of .237. These numbers are not desirable, but they are not glaringly bad.

For the most part, the top of the Owls’ lineup has fared well so far. Freshman shortstop Ford Proctor has a team-best .359 average and junior outfielder Dayne Wunderlich leads Rice with a .455 slugging percentage and 10 runs batted in. The bottom of the lineup, however, has struggled mightily. Five players who have started at least half of the Owls’ games are hitting .231 or below. While it is still early in the season, it is concerning that the lineup appears very top-heavy. If Rice hopes to contend for a national title, it must even out the distribution of offensive production.

Although the Owls have been far from outstanding, it is still too early to worry. The team is in the midst of what is arguably the toughest stretch of its season, playing eight games against opponents ranked in the top 25 over its first 17 contests. Rice will play four more games against ranked opponents this week and next week. After the game against Texas Christian University next Friday, however, the Owls are scheduled to play only one more game against a current top 25 opponent this season.

The schedule is one reason to be optimistic, but the team must improve if it wishes to contend in the postseason. Two hitters in particular are due to improve: senior infielder Connor Teykl and sophomore outfielder Ryan Chandler are hitting .194 and .220 respectively this season. These performances are not on par with what each player has delivered in the past. Last season, both players started all 59 games for the Owls, with Teykl hitting .291 and Chandler hitting .302 on the season. If Teykl and Chandler can even come close to replicating those performances for the rest of the season, the team’s offense should see great improvement.

On the defensive side, the Owls have already begun to commit fewer errors as they settle into the season. After gathering 15 errors in their first five games, they have committed only six in their past seven games. The pitching will likely remain solid for the remainder of the season, but the Owls’ rotation has the potential to be great if Parthasarathy can build upon his early-season success and Duplantier and Fox can consistently pitch deep into games. If all goes well, Rice has the chance to vault itself back into the top 25 and contend for a national title. For now, though, it is far too early to tell what this team will do.

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