Rice baseball looked every bit the equal of visiting Oklahoma but dropped the series two games to one in the final weekend of nonconference play.
It was hard to tell which Rice baseball team was going to show up to the diamond in their final weekend of non-conference play. The Owls had been swept at a stout UC Irvine squad two weekends ago before exploding for two massive upsets against ranked Baylor and TCU squads a week later.
Oklahoma would prove to be a worthy test for this newly confident Rice club. Outside of one no-good-very-bad inning, the Owls battled with the visiting Sooners for the duration of the series. Here’s a rundown of each game and a few overarching thoughts from the weekend.
FRIDAY | Rice 8 – Oklahoma 1
The Oklahoma pitching staff got off to a slow start on Friday night and Rice took advantage of the majority of the mistakes. Rice scratched a run across on a wild pitch in the first and tacked on an unearned run in the second. The Owls would score again on a wild pitch in the fourth to extend their lead to 3-0. Rice would add two more runs in the fourth, claiming a 5-0 lead.
Matt Canterino was dominant once again on the mound, blanking Oklahoma through the first four innings as the offense staked him to a comfortable lead. An unearned run in the fifth was his only hiccup, but that was quickly avenged by a Rice home run in the following inning.
The Oklahoma pitching problems continued throughout the night. A wild pitch in the seventh allowed Rice tack on another run. The Owls tacked on another insurance run in the eight. The big lead was plenty for Kendall Jeffries, who finished off the last two innings for the Owls to secure the win.
SATURDAY | Oklahoma 17 – Rice 8
After a quiet night with the bats on Friday, Oklahoma struck first with a sac fly in the first and a two-run double in the second. Put into an early hole, the Rice offense responded. Trei Cruz and Justin Collins went deep in the third to even the score at 3-3. Aaron Beaulaurier cracked the deadlock in the fourth with a two-run double of his own.
Oklahoma got a run back with a fifth inning home run before a Cade Edwards triple cleared the bases in the bottom half of the inning. The resulting 8-4 lead did not last long. As soon as starting pitcher Evan Kravetz was removed the bullpen simply fell apart.
Outside of 1.2 innings of scoreless relief from Blair Lewis, the combination of Dalton Wood, Jackson Tyner, Ben Schragger and Zach Esquivel collected three outs, walked nine batters and surrendered six hits. The collective loss of command allowed Oklahoma to explode for 13 runs, four in the sixth inning and nine in the eighth inning. Down 17-8, the Owls went quietly in the final two innings.
SUNDAY | Oklahoma 6 – Rice 0
Sunday’s pitcher’s duel between Oklahoma’s Levi Prater and Rice’s Jackson Parthasarathy was a stark departure from the cavalcade of runs both offenses had produced in the two games prior. Neither lineup was able to find consistent success against the other team’s starter, resulting in a tight game from start to finish.
A two-run, two-out double by Oklahoma’s Friday night starting pitcher Cade Cavalli was the difference through most of Sunday’s low scoring affair. The next six innings were scoreless for both sides until Oklahoma catcher Brady Lindsly launched a 1-2 offering from Kel Bordwine over the right field wall. The three-run shot put Oklahoma ahead 5-0.
Rice wasn’t able to string together any offense of their own in the final two innings, dropping the rubber game and the series.
TAKEAWAYS | Oklahoma wins series 2-1
1. Hitting is contagious
When the season began it was little more than Trei Cruz when it came to production at the plate. Braden Comeaux and Justin Collins started relatively slowly before heating up over the past two weeks. Now the offense finds itself in somewhat the inverse. Cruz has come back to earth, 1-for-10 with 2 RBI over the weekend, but the rest of the offense has risen together. “It’s contagious stuff,” Bragga admitted, contrasting it with the string of bad offensive outings to start the season.
Bradley Gneiting (twice), Braden Comeaux (twice), Justin Collins, Dominic DiCaprio and Cade Edwards all had multi-hit games over the weekend. Even with the quieter Sunday showing, the Rice offense tallied 30 hits. That’s 13 more base knocks than the 17 they amassed over a three-game sweep at the hands of UC Irvine two weeks prior.
Bragga was overwhelmingly positive in his assessment of the progress the entire lineup has made. “Our approaches at the plate are much better. The guys are getting better, they’re working really hard and I’m proud of them. We’re not where we need to be yet, but the guys are definitely working hard and seeing some benefits of the work they’re putting in.”
Even center fielder Aaron Beaulaurier, who has maintained a sub-.200 batting average this season, took a ball deep to left field on Friday night for his first home run. It took some time to get going, but Rice is finding production from every spot in the order and not asking one man to carry the team.
2. The bullpen looks remarkably thin
If head coach Matt Bragga had to go to the bullpen to get one big out, who would he call on first? At this point, the answer would probably by Kendall Jeffries. The senior sports the lowest WHIP (1.08) among all Rice relievers and owns both of the team’s two saves. After Jeffries and presumed weekend rotation candidate Addison Moss there are a ton of question marks.
Jackson Tyner, who had allowed one run on one hit in his four previous appearances, failed to record an out over the weekend while allowing five runs (two earned). Garrett Gayle has struggled with his command and leads the team with seven walks despite only nine innings of work. Ben Schragger and Brandon Deskins have had problems with walks, too. Kel Borwdine has been extremely hittable. Blair Lewis has been fine, albeit with large cushions.
As good as the Rice starting pitching has been, there needs to be a few more trustworthy arms in the bullpen. If there’s nobody who can come in and stop what happened on Saturday in the eighth inning, Rice is going to be in trouble come conference play.
3. Canterino picks up his first win
After three outings, Rice ace Matt Canterino was still in search of his first win of the 2019 season. Outside of a few home runs against UC Irvine, Canterino has been in good form this season, something which continued Friday night against Oklahoma.
On a night in which Bragga and Canterino said the Rice ace wasn’t at his best, Canterino hurled six innings of two-hit ball against OU, striking out six and walking one. The change from this outing compared to his prior appearances was the run support. Leaving the game with a 6-1 lead in the sixth, this marked the first time all season Canterino was eligible for the win at the time of his exit.
Canterino’s record improves to 1-2, serving as a subtle reminder that pitching wins often don’t tell the full story. Canterino knew the win would come, but even more importantly, he says this team has taken a significant mental step. “We know we can win now,” he said, “We know we have plenty of pieces. We’re putting together good games.”
ON DECK | vs Lamar (Tues), vs Texas State (Wed), at FAU (Fri-Sun)
- Rice Baseball: Bullpen holds as Owls top LaTech at CUSA Tournament
- Rice Baseball: Owls stunned by walk-off loss to Southern Miss in CUSA Tournament
- Rice Baseball 2019: Previewing CUSA Tournament game vs Southern Miss
- Conference USA Baseball Tournament 2019 Preview, schedule, how to watch