HOUSTON, TX- Coming into the season, it was all but understood that, in order for Rice to once again be the type of team that could stick among the top 15 or 20 teams in the country, potentially host a regional, and challenge to get to Omaha, they would need Jon Duplantier to be healthy, first and foremost, but to also fulfill the massive potential that he flashed as a freshman.
Check and check.
Duplantier has been everything the Owls could have asked for in a Friday night ace, and on this particular Friday night, he had arguably his best start of the season (depending on how you feel about his 14-strikeout performance against UCF in early-March). In his teams’s 5-1 win over the Charlotte 49ers, he threw eight innings, giving up three hits and one run with one walk and 12 strikeouts.
To say he cruised for the most part would be a massive understatement. He threw five 1-2-3 innings, at one point he retired 11 in a row between the second and sixth innings, and only in Charlotte’s run-scoring sixth inning did the 49ers have two baserunners on at the same time.
And on those rare occasions when he was tested, he shut it down quickly, such as when Charlotte put a runner on third with one-out in the first inning thanks to a Brett Netzer triple. With Netzer just 90 feet away from putting his team on top, Duplantier buckled down and struck out Logan Sherer and induced a groundout off the bat of T.J. Nichting.
Even when the 49ers plated their run in the sixth, they did so on an out, in this case, a groundout by Sherer. One batter later, he was out of the inning after getting Nichting to ground out.
Judging by recent results, it would appear that Duplantier is only getting strong as the season wears on. Just last week against Southern Mississippi, in Rice’s most important series of the year to date, he went out and threw seven innings, giving up six hits and two runs (one earned) with three walks and ten strikeouts. The Owls dropped that game, but the loss certainly had little to do with the effort of their starting pitcher.
All told this season, he’s now 5-4 with a 2.43 ERA, a 99/28 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .193 opponent batting average in 77.2 innings of work.
The starting rotation after Duplantier, made up of Blake Fox and Ricardo Salinas, has shined this season as well, but make no mistake; the big righty has his team in position to be as successful as we thought they could be in the preseason.
Here are more notes and thoughts from the doubleheader between Rice and Charlotte on Friday:
- In the second game of the doubleheader, Charlotte redshirt freshman Colton Laws returned the favor after Duplantier’s gem earlier in the day. The East Carolina transfer threw seven shutout innings, giving up just four hits and two walks. This was a nice bounce back start for Laws. After throwing seven shutout innings in his first start of the season against Fairfield on March 12, he had only thrown more than 4.1 innings in a start once (six innings against Middle Tennessee State on April 16) and hadn’t given up fewer than three earned runs in any of those starts. Laws didn’t dazzle by any stretch of the imagination, but he induced a ton of soft contact and forced the Owls to beat him rather than beating himself.
- Overlooked a little bit in the first game was the great relief outing from Charlotte’s Nate Traugh after starter Sean Geoghegan lasted just 4.2 innings. The 6’5″ righty threw 3.1 scoreless innings, giving up just three hits along the way after entering the game with a 6.59 ERA to his name. The 49ers already have a solid relief duo in Holden Capps (who closed out the Charlotte win with two near-perfect innings) and Phillip Perry, but it would be a huge boost if they could add someone like Traugh to that mix more often.
- Rice’s Tristan Gray had three hits in both games, and that’s no small detail. After returning from a kneecap injury that forced him to miss a sizable portion of the middle of the season, Gray got off to something of a slow start, but it appears that he’s heating up at the right time. Raising your average 59 points in the span of two games, as he did in going from .259 to .318 on Friday, is certainly evidence of that. Coming into the weekend, Rice had the second-lowest batting average, the lowest on-base percentage, and the second-lowest slugging percentage in Conference USA. The concerns about Rice are still clearly on offense, and while one player like Gray breaking out isn’t going to change everything, it isn’t going to hurt.
- It’s been said a thousand times in a thousand places so far this season, but it bears repeating that there may not be a more valuable reliever in all of college baseball than Glenn Otto for the Owls. The righty threw 1.2 more perfect innings in the second game on Friday, bringing his season ERA to 1.24 and his season opponent batting average to .195. Some will still argue that his skills would be more valuable in the starting rotation, but for one, it’s easy to see the value he brings to the club in his current role, and second, it’s not as if the team is hurting for quality starts on the weekend.
- It didn’t really show up on Friday, as they scored all of two runs total, but Charlotte does boast a pretty dynamic offensive quartet at the top of their lineup, with Reece Hampton, Brett Netzer, Logan Sherer, and T.J. Nichting. Coming into the series, each was hitting .351 or higher and had an on-base percentage of .390 or higher. Nichting shined in the second game, as he created the 49ers’ only run with a line-drive home run to left and added his 19th double of the season later on. In an alternate universe where this team gets more consistent pitching throughout, Charlotte is very tough to deal with. As it is, a pitching staff that had the second-highest ERA in the league coming into the weekend hasn’t always been able to make runs hold up this season.
- In his start, Rice lefty starting pitcher Blake Fox threw 7.1 innings, giving up six hits and one run, but got a loss on his record for his troubles. This lack of run support for the senior is just a continuation of a season-long trend. Coming into this weekend, if you remove the single most-productive offensive game the Owls’ offense has had with Fox on the mound, the team was hitting .204 in support of him. A tip of the hat goes to Rice baseball SID John Sullivan for that stat. With zero runs on four hits while Fox was in the game today, that batting average actually dropped.
- With Charlotte stealing the second game of this series, the series finale, whether it’s played Saturday or Sunday (if it is moved back due to rain), is suddenly a huge game for the Owls. A single loss in this series isn’t a killer, but dropping a home series to a team in the 150 range in the RPI would be a tough blow to take.