Coming off of an absolute flattening of Purdue two weekends ago, a three-game set that witnessed the Owls unload at the plate for a combined 35 runs and the pitching staff quell a Boilermaker lineup that was only able to muster up a combined five runs of offense over the weekend, Rice faltered heading into the third week of the season, unable to capitalize on the big weekend that was against Purdue.
Rice dropped their midweek contest against Sam Houston State before turning in a 1-2 record in the Houston Classic over the weekend. In all fairness to the Owls, they were only outscored by two runs the entire weekend, holding each opponent to two runs or fewer in each contest – not to mention the fact that each of those teams have been ranked in the Top 25 by College Baseball Central at least once this season.
As per the usual, the name of the game was on the mound, as offenses had a rough go-around against the likes of the Owls’ stingy staff and in turn, the Owls’ lineup had little answers to the arms of Texas’ Parker French and Texas Tech’s Chris Sadberry, although they were able to squeak out a run against a locked-in Preston Morrison in a 1-0 victory over TCU on Saturday.
As such, the baseball gods have the ability to take something like a moment of redemptive bliss and brazen it with the cruelest of intents. For the Owls, the baseball gods spoke on Tuesday and delivered an all too somber message to legendary head coach Wayne Graham. The message?
Friday night starter and staff ace Jordan Stephens would be sidelined for the remainder of the season due to Tommy John surgery, a result of more than five weeks of reported soreness in his pitching elbow. For a team that places considerable emphasis on the strength of their pitching staff, being dealt such a blow can be crushing. But the Owls have refused to sit and wallow.
Ever the fighters, the Owls responded with retribution in a midweek matchup against Sam Houston State on the road in Huntsville. Chase McDowell held the Bearkats’ lineup in check for 6 2/3 innings, an offense that would not go down quietly, as they plated three late runs before Austin Orewiler entered in the ninth to put out the flames for the 8-5 victory.
Retribution granted and more so retribution needed heading into their first taste of Conference USA play this weekend against Old Dominion. And how exactly did that first taste play out on Friday?
Well, the Owls more than made do with Zech Lemond on the mound. Lemond was dominant, baffling the Monarchs’ lineup through 6 2/3 innings of one run (unearned) ball, scattering just two hits and fanning a career-high 10 batters, while surrendering three walks. Matt Ditman finished out the last 2 1/3 innings, holding the Monarchs at bay and preserving the Owls’ three-run lead, an eventual 4-1 victory.
While everything went according to plan on the mound, such can be said about the Owls’ performance at the plate. Rice came out swinging, scoring three early runs in the first, as the catalyst behind the early barrage was rather unexpected. Leon Byrd (who came into the game hitting a team-low .159 BA for everyday starters) approached the plate with two outs and the bases juiced, ripping a double to left that plated all three runners. The Owls added a fourth run in the fifth, this time from the all too familiar bat of Skyler Ewing, who has served as the offensive torchbearer through 14 games this season.
Ewing is having a breakout year, something that was expected after an impressive run at the Cape this past summer where he displayed great pop and even grabbed home run derby honors, a type of year Rice needed him to have, as they needed somebody to step forward and be that offensive stalwart in the middle of the lineup. Although he has had a rather slow start to the season, Michael Aquino is key to this lineup going forward, a lineup that has solid depth top to bottom – from athleticism to power potential to speed to hitting ability.
After an impressive pitching performance from the Owls on Friday, what can we make of the staff going forward? What needs to happen in Stephens’ absence in order to ensure a successful season?
Lemond should be more than effective in the Friday night role going forward, as he has displayed time and time again that he can work extended innings and work through without compromising or letting his stuff drop off. As such, he’s quite familiar with the starting role, wherein he was thrust into the starting role on the road against Oregon in last year’s Eugene Regional final, working 6 2/3 innings and serving up seven punchouts to lead the Owls past the Ducks and into the super regionals.
As a result though, his move to the rotation will leave a noticeable void in the back of the bullpen. With that being said, the likes of Kevin McCanna and Jon Duplantier need to get going, as they have surrendered a total of 14 earned runs this season and are key pieces to the depth of the pitching staff – as both can be utilized in a midweek starting role and out of the bullpen for long relief, and were the Owls’ two top pitching recruits heading into each of the last two seasons for a reason.
Nonetheless, it can still be argued despite recent concerns that the Owls are not as thin in terms of depth as they were last season, as Evan Rutter and Austin Orewiler have been stout in limited relief action, while Ditman has displayed good stuff in the rotation and out of the bullpen.
Although Lemond has the stuff to excel at the helm of the weekend rotation, he cannot be leaned on in the manner he was in the bullpen, as Blake Fox and Chase McDowell will have to continue their recent success going forward. Fox has proven that he is an effective and reliable No. 2 starter, having won each of his three Saturday starts, two of which came against the solid offenses of Stanford and TCU, whereas McDowell has finally put all of the pieces together in his fifth season, boasting a 1.72 ERA in 15.2 innings of work.
Baseball is all about making adjustments and surely the Owls will be making the proper ones going forward, as was even witnessed Friday against Old Dominion. With Wayne Graham at the helm, expect the Owls to steer course and get back to business as usual.