Rice baseball picked up their first home series sweep under head coach Matt Bragga, winning three games against Middle Tennessee State to improve to .500 in conference play.
Rice entered Easter weekend with a bad taste in their mouth. The Owls had blasted Charlotte in their series opener and outscored them by 10 runs over the course of three games only to drop the series. With no midweek game to take their mind off the tough blow, all efforts turned to Middle Tennessee.
Coach Bragga’s charge to his team this weekend was straightforward. “We need to start making a move if we’re going to make one.” Rice made their move, sweeping their second conference opponent this season. Here are some notes on an encouraging series at Reckling Park.
THURSDAY | Rice 10 – MTSU 4
Rice RBI leader Andrew Dunlap got things going in the series opener with an RBI single in the first inning. The Owls took the 1-0 lead into the third where they broke the game open, batting around and scoring eight runs on six hits and four walks. Justin Collins and Braden Comeaux picked up two RBI apiece, with four other Owls driving in one run during the big inning.
The nine-run cushion was more than enough for Matt Canterino, who put together what was arguably his best outing of the season. He struck out 10 in seven innings, earning his team-leading fifth win of the season. Middle Tennessee would tack on four against Rice reliever Drake Greenwood, but the sizable lead would hold for the Owls’ fourth-straight win in series openers.
FRIDAY | Rice 7 – MTSU 2
The Owls’ bats got off to a slightly slower start on Friday night, but once they woke up, they caught fire. Two home runs, one by Cade Edwards another Dominic Cox, put Rice ahead 2-0 in the fourth inning. Then the Owls exploded for five runs in the fifth.
Bradley Gneiting, Trei Cruz, and Andrew Dunlap strung together three consecutive RBI hits. Dunlap came around to score the seventh run on an error. The 7-0 lead would hold until the ninth inning where once more MTSU would collect a flurry of hits, scoring two, not enough to give the Owls much of a scare.
SATURDAY |Rice 7 – MTSU 5
For the first time in the weekend, Rice was forced to come from behind. Starting pitcher Jackson Parthasarathy wasn’t as sharp as his predecessors on the mound. He would have been serviceable had the defense not committed three errors on the day, two of which resulted in three unearned runs charged to Parthasarathy.
Trailing 4-0 after Parthasarathy was removed midway through the third inning, Rice began to chip away. Rice got two in the third, one in the fourth and one in the fifth before tying the game in the seventh on a Cade Edwards sac fly. Justin Collins would drive a two-out single to left later in the inning, scoring what would be the game-winning run.
MTSU didn’t make it easy, loading the bases in the ninth. With the tying run in scoring position, Kendall Jeffries induced a double-play to clinch the victory and the series sweep.
TAKEAWAYS | Rice wins series 3-0
1. Pitch like this every weekend
It’s been no secret the Rice starting pitching is the strength of this team. When all three of the Owls’ rotation are locked in this team is going to have a chance to win most series. Aside from the sloppy defense on Saturday, the starting pitching was nearly as good as it’s been all season this weekend against Middle Tennessee, and the results were the first home series sweep of the Matt Bragga era.
Canterino, Kravetz and Parthasarathy combined for 27 strikeouts with five walks, and one earned runs allowed. That’s a stellar line through 16.2 innings on the bump. More length out of their Sunday starter would have been ideal, but an extremely fresh bullpen gave coach Bragga a bit more leeway with how long he left Parthasarathy on the mound. If Rice pitches this well, they’ll have a chance to win each of their remaining CUSA series.
2. Cade Edwards
The Rice lineup has become more consistent as the season has gone on. Slowly but surely the top three became the top four. Somewhat quietly, Cade Edwards has entrenched himself as part of the glue which holds this offense together. Batting fifth throughout the weekend, Edwards picked up six hits, batting .600 in the series with the go-ahead home run on Friday and the game-tying sac fly on Saturday.
Edwards is riding a 7-game hitting streak. The Rice offense has scored five or more runs in five of those seven games, and Edwards has been in the thick of the action. Bragga likes what he’s seeing from the Owls’ second baseman, calling Edwards “a real solid hitter [who has] some really good bat speed and drives through the ball really well.”
3. Come and take it
Rice has officially passed the midway point of conference play. It’s been a bumpy ride, but after starting 0-5, Rice has won nine of their next 14, pulling themselves back to .500 in conference play. It’s no guarantee of future success, but it is a testament to a team willing to fight.
With four series remaining, Rice is in the thick of the pack in Conference USA. FAU leads the way at 14-4 with the Owls five games behind, tied for fifth. They entered the weekend tied for seventh, with tiebreakers putting them in ninth place.
Winning the conference is still mathematically possible, but even without an incredible late surge, Rice has enough season left to position themselves for the conference tournament in Biloxi.
Entering the weekend D1 Baseball projected Conference USA to be a two-bid league with league-leading FAU sitting in the First Five Out. Rice has a few signature wins (TCU, Baylor), but the chances of reaching the postseason with a sub-.500 overall record will be slim to none.
Rice is 18-23 right now, meaning the most likely avenue to postseason play is a CUSA Tournament win. That’s much easier to do as a three seed than an eight-seed. Coach Bragga says he’s aware of the numbers and the scenarios, but “at the end of the day, we have to go perform. If we perform, we’ll have an opportunity, if we don’t we won’t.”
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