One of the more impressive performances in Division I college baseball last week was that of the Rice Owls’ perfect 5-0 record – a record that was not sullied by lackluster opponents, as the Owls grabbed a 5-0 shutout victory over TCU on Tuesday.
A 12-10 victory over an experienced Texas A&M-Corpus team followed on Wednesday before sweeping their weekend series at FIU, arguably one of the stronger offensive teams in the country.
And to think we are just two weeks removed from the announcement that staff ace Jordan Stephens (Jr, RHP) would be lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery to repair an elbow injury that had nagged him for more than five weeks.
How has the Rice Owls baseball team handled that news in the nine games since?
Well, how’s winning eight of nine sound?
After having a rough go-around in the Houston Classic, the Owls were greeted with the untimely announcement that was Stephens’ elbow injury just two days following the tournament in Houston.
Rice was forced to scramble, thrusting bullpen anchor Zech Lemond into the Friday night role and sliding Matt Ditman into Lemond’s vacated slot as the definitive closer.
How did that fair?
Well for starters, the Owls responded the following day with an impressive 8-5 victory over Sam Houston State on the road, as Chase McDowell held a crafty Bearkats’ lineup in check for 6 2/3 innings before handing off to Austin Orewiler in the seventh, who quelled the flames of a tried, but failed Bearkats rally.
In their first test following the loss of Stephens, the Owls sought retribution in their first taste of Conference USA play in a weekend series against Old Dominion.
That first taste played out rather nicely for the Owls, as Zech Lemond was dominant on the mound, baffling the Monarchs’ lineup over 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball on just two hits and a career-high 10 strikeouts.
Matt Ditman held the Monarchs at bay for 2 1/3 innings of relief, cementing the 4-1 victory, as the Owls carried over that momentum into Saturday’s matchup. Blake Fox turned in 7 1/3 strong innings of two-run ball, giving way to a 9 2/3 scoreless inning bullpen effort that helped seal the 17-inning affair, an eventual 3-2 victory for the Owls.
The Owls would drop the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader by a score of 2-1, although it wasn’t from a lack of effort on the mound, as Kevin McCanna went the distance and then some, working 9 1/3 innings of two-run ball into the 10th frame before surrendering the go-ahead run on a Tyler Urps single to right.
The offense was rather silent, but rightfully so after 28-innings of baseball on Saturday. Nonetheless, the Owls responded with a perfect showing this past week, further cementing the argument that they’re the class of the field amongst fellow Conference USA teams.
After triumphs over TCU and Texas A&M-Corpus in their two midweek contests, the Owls rolled into Miami, Florida this past weekend and came away with a three-game sweep. Leading the way on Friday was Lemond, who tossed eight innings of two-run ball in the 13-inning affair, an eventual 3-2 victory.
As we have seen over the past two weeks, Lemond should be more than effective in the Friday night role going forward, as he displayed time and time again out of the bullpen 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.
Perhaps just as encouraging is the way that Ditman has embraced his role as closer and anchor of the bullpen, as evidenced through his five scoreless innings of relief work in Friday’s victory, where he held a strong FIU lineup to just two hits and fanned eight batters in the process.
In 26 innings of work this season, Ditman boasts a 1.04 ERA and a 27:5 strikeout to walk ratio, wherein he has been able to tame any and all offenses on the season with an upper-80s/lows 90s heater that possesses solid movement and a curve that generates plenty of swings and misses.
Blake Fox turned in a strong outing on Saturday to help the Owls grab a 10-2 victory from FIU, as the southpaw worked eight innings of two-run ball, fanning six and surrendering just a single free pass. In 32 2/3 innings of work this season, Fox boasts a 4-0 record and 1.38 ERA, holding opposing batters to a .246 average.
It’s a solid four-pitch repertoire consisting of a mid to upper-80s fastball with good movement in the zone, very good changeup, and a slider and curve that he mixes in quite nicely, that helps Fox keep opposing lineups at bay and off balance, in turn giving the Owls’ lineup plenty of opportunities to capitalize on offense each Saturday he is on the mound.
McCanna has been shaky as the Sunday starter, prompting head coach Wayne Graham to slide Chase McDowell into the role going forward – as evidenced by McCanna’s start this past Sunday, wherein he worked just 3 2/3 innings of five-run ball, surrendering eight hits and walking four batters, although the offense bailed him out with a five-run rally in the top of the seventh and a solid bullpen performance by Trevor Teykl and McDowell, who combined for 5 1/3 frames and held the FIU offense to just two runs (one earned), including three scoreless to close out the game.
McDowell has finally put all of the pieces together this year after struggling to find a definitive groove in his previous four seasons with the Owls. He employs great movement on his two-seamer (a pitch he keeps in the upper 80s/low 90s), changeup, and breaking ball, all of which have come together in allowing him to post a 3-1 record and 1.05 ERA in 25 2/3 innings of work this season – not to mention the fact that he has been a key bat for the Owls throughout the season, as he boasts a .400 BA and .516 OBP, while driving in 11 runs in the process.
One of the key pieces to the success of this pitching staff has been that of starting catcher John Clay Reeves, as coach Graham has given him free-reign in calling pitches – a role he has embraced to much success, as the juco-transfer has kept a collected and cool head on the shoulders that is the pitching staff this season.
At the plate, Reeves is not too shabby with the bat as well. In all five games last week, Reeves went 17-for-25, improving his batting slash to a highly impressive .416/.532/.478 on the young season.
While the pitching staff appears to be hitting its stride, the likes of Jon Duplantier (a freshman with incredible potential who has struggled with command in six appearances this season) and McCanna must find a groove in the coming weeks to give the Owls the needed depth down the stretch, as both offer viable long-relief and as needed-starts, but only if they improve going forward.
With that being said, the Owls have much to be optimistic about going forward in terms of pitching, but in order for Rice to pose a deep postseason threat, they will have to keep up the pace on the mound and hope that key arms in the bullpen are able to be reliable down the stretch.
With a balanced attack at the plate and a core of strong arms on the mound, the recent success of the Owls appears to be more than just a reactionary tale, but more of a consistent trend of things to come.