HOUSTON, TX- There is an entire list of boxes that a team has to check in order to end up being a good team when it’s all said and done.
Some roll off the tongue right away- pitching depth, a well-balanced offense, and a penchant for making all of the routine plays that should be made on defense. Even if you get all of these things over the course of the season, you still need timely hitting, some luck along the way, and contributions from some unlikely individuals.
The jury is still very much out on whether or not the 2016 Rice Owls check all, or even most, of those aforementioned boxes, but on Saturday, they checked off that last box thanks to a 2-for-4 day with three RBI for Andrew Dunlap.
In a vacuum, that may not seem to be all that out of the ordinary. Dunlap, after all, came into the game with nine at-bats on the year and had started two games, so there was some intention of him holding down a role on this team. But when you pan out and really look at the bigger picture, you can see just how unlikely it is that Dunlap is in this position, given all the turns that his career has taken.
Prior to the 2014 season, Dunlap arrived on campus as a pitcher, which in and of itself was a bit of a plot twist, as he did not begin pitching in earnest until his high school career was over. He did not appear in a game as a freshman in 2014, and then in 2015, he was not even listed on the Rice roster. Given that he dealt with a shoulder injury during this period of time that ended any hopes of pitching for the Owls, that could have easily been the end of his time in a Rice uniform.
Instead, Dunlap went back to work on his hitting, and having been away from the game for two full seasons, he has been itching to get back.
“I am (itching to get back on the field),” Dunlap said. “I wasn’t on the roster last year, and I missed it. I had a surgery on my shoulder and wasn’t ever able to come pitch here like I was recruited to do. So I just worked on my hitting some more and hopefully this is the year where it’s going to come through.”
With Rice’s offense struggling to put up crooked numbers through the first few weeks of the season, head coach Wayne Graham inserted Dunlap into the starting nine on Saturday, thanks to a favorable matchup with ECU lefty Jacob Wolfe on the mound and the need for the Owls to find someone who can bring some thunder to the lineup.
Certainly, Dunlap came through on this day.
In his first at-bat, in the second inning, he ripped a double into the left-center gap, bringing home Ryan Chandler, who had doubled immediately beforehand.
In the fourth inning, he just got under a ball a little bit and flew out to the warning track. Even after a couple of hard hit balls, his most impressive feat on this day came in the sixth inning.
Dunlap stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, but quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole. It was then, though, that he went to work, fouling off and taking everything that ECU reliever Evan Voliva had until he got a pitch he liked and lined a two-run single into left field, breaking what had been a 2-2 tie and opening up the floodgates for what would eventually be a four-run sixth inning for Rice.
For Dunlap, it was a matter of simply taking the right mindset into that at-bat.
“I fell behind 0-2 very quickly and it kind of surprise me. He threw well, and I was just tying to battle because those guys were on base, and I knew Glenn (Otto) was going to come in and shut it down if we could get the runs in. I finally got a pitch I could handle and hit it into left,” he said.
And shut ECU down Otto did, as the sophomore righty reliever threw the final 3.1 innings of the game, giving up just one hit and no runs with no walks and four strikeouts after starter Blake Fox gave the Owls 5.2 quality innings, giving up three hits and two runs with two walks and seven strikeouts.
After a tough 10-1 loss on Friday, the Saturday game was just what the doctor ordered for the Owls. They got a solid start from a senior leader in Fox, Otto provided shutdown relief, and the offense came through with seven runs on 12 hits in what might be their best offensive performance of the season to this point.
It’s tough to draw too many sweeping conclusions from just a single game, but for Dunlap, it was just what the team needs to move forward.
“This is what we need, something to really get us going. Just a great win all around. We came out for the first time really crushing the ball. We have what it takes, we know that, it’s just been a slow start. We’re on the rise now.”