Rice baseball opened the Matt Bragga era with a series win over visiting Rhode Island at Reckling Park, highlighted by a walk-off wild pitch for the Owls’ first win of the season.
The Matt Bragga era on South Main is officially underway. Hired away from Tennessee Tech, Bragga was introduced in June and has been hard at work ever since. Fall ball and spring workouts have given way to real baseball, starting with the Owls’ opening weekend against Rhode Island at Reckling Park.
Rice took the series two games to one. Here’s a rundown of each game a few closing thoughts from the weekend.
FRIDAY | Rhode Island 2, Rice 1 (10 innings)
The concerns around this team during the offseason largely focused on the offensive side of the ball. Those early worries proved accurate out of the gate with as the Owls failed to give their ace Matt Canterino much support on Friday night.
Canterino was superb, tossing 6.1 innings of scoreless baseball, allowing three hits and one walk while striking out nine. The offense managed one run on a Trei Cruz RBI single, one of six hits on the night.
It was the defense that faltered in extra innings. Rice committed two errors in the 10th, the first of which allowed Rhode Island to score an unearned and eventual game-deciding run.
SATURDAY | Rice 7, Rhode Island 6 (13 innings)
A comfortable lead turned into a thrilling finish on Saturday, culminating in an extra-inning win, the first of the Matt Bragga era. Rice had built a 3-0 lead on a career night from starting pitcher Evan Kravetz, inserted after Addison Moss was a late scratch (wrist). Kravetz set a career high with 10 strikeouts through five innings, giving way to Dalton Wood in the sixth.
Rhode Island battled back, eventually tying the game in the top of the ninth inning, the second full inning worked by potential closer Garrett Gayle. The score would stay deadlocked at 5-5 entering extra until Rhode Island scratched across a run in the top of the 13th.
Trailing 6-5, Rice needed a spark. They got it from Dominic Cox. He was hit by a pitch, advanced to second on a wild pitch and came in to score on an errant throw to third on a Trei Cruz single. Cruz would come in to score the winning run minutes later on a passed ball, a fortunate break which capped off the five-hour contest.
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) February 17, 2019
SUNDAY | Rice 15, Rhode Island 3
There was no pitchers duel on Sunday. Rice matched their seven runs scored in 13 innings the game prior in the first three frames. Rhode Island starter Nick Robinson surrendered five extra-base hits, including the first two home runs of the weekend one by Trei Cruz, the other by Justin Collins.
Cruz launched a grand slam in the fifth inning, the highlight of a masterful performance at the plate. That long ball gave him eight RBI for the game, the most runs driven in by any Rice player since Anthony Rendon tallied eight RBI against Cal in 2010.
On the mound, Jackson Parthasarathy moved quickly mowing down Rhode Island hitters left and right. He matched the strong starts from Canterino and Kravetz, going six innings while allowing one hit, no runs and striking out eight.
After the slow start, Sunday’s runaway win gave this team a nice boost of confidence headed into two important midweek games against Texas and Arizona.
TAKEAWAYS | Rice wins series 2-1
1. Rice pitching was as good as advertised
There will be much more threatening visiting lineups in Reckling Park this year. Rhode Island was a young, mostly unproven group from the northeast and Rice met them with an experienced group of hurlers. It should have been a dominant outing by the Rice pitching staff. For the most part, it was.
Through three games, Rice starters hold a season ERA of 0.00. The combination of Canterino, Kravetz and Parthasarathy allowed seven hits, two walks and zero runs while striking out 27 over 17.1 innings pitched.
It wasn’t just a good weekend for the rotation. Kendal Jeffries and Kel Bordwine were both strong out of the pen. Jeffries relieved Canterino on Friday night, throwing 3.2 innings with six strikeouts and four hits. Bordwine carried the Owls through three extra frames on Saturday. Despite being charged with the go-ahead run allowed by Zach Esquivel, he allowed three hits with two strikeouts, facing 13.
Bragga had high praise for his pitchers, saying “They’re giving our offense a chance to find our identity right now.” It took every bit of success from the Owls on the bump to match Rhode Island on Friday and Saturday. Sunday, the offense took over.
2. The offense is a work in progress, but there’s plenty to work with
Active baserunning, hit and runs, a squeeze play at home and the long ball were all part of the repertoire for the Rice offense on opening weekend. Bragga expects the offense to become more cohesive as the season progresses, but for now, he’s going to continue to experiment.
“I’m learning this team. I’m learning these guys and trying to figure out what’s best suited for us to score runs,” Bragga said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get those runs in because are pitching staff is throwing really well.”
Cruz was the offensive MVP of the weekend, leading the team with eight hits, including two home runs and two triples on Saturday, and 10 RBI. Dominic DiCaprio and Cade Edwards had a pair of doubles. Bradley Geniting had six hits, scoring five times. Four Owls (Gneiting, T. Cruz, Collins, Edwards) leave opening weekend with a batting average better than .300.
3. The fielding must get better
The pitchers shined and the offense showed flashes, leaving the errors with the gloves the most glaring concern of the weekend.
Rice committed seven errors on the weekend. If they play clean baseball the series could very well have ended in a sweep. When the offense is firing on all cylinders they’ll have the wiggle room to work past the occasional fielding mistake. For now, it’s even more imperative the team tightens up their fielding.
Both of the first two games were decided by errors with the deciding runs coming for each squad via fielding miscues. Even with a sizable lead on Sunday, Rice couldn’t come up with a clean sheet.