Rice baseball came back to earth over the weekend. The Owls saw their six-game CUSA win streak snapped by a sweep at the hands of Western Kentucky.
Rice swept each of their last two Conference USA series and was reasonably confident entering a three-game tilt with Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers were right in the middle of the pack along with the Owls, but had proven themselves to be beatable along the way. Not only was Rice unable to take the series, they weren’t able to win a game. Here’s a rundown of the tough weekend and three closing thoughts on the regrettable string of defeats.
FRIDAY (GAME 1) | WKU 6 – Rice 3
Things started out as good as Rice could have hoped for in the series opener. Matt Canterino was lights out on the mound, striking out 11 batters in seven innings. Western Kentucky was able to rough him up a bit in his final inning, but after allowing four straight hits, Canterino survived the scare and left the game in position to earn the win.
Counting the two runs given up by Canterino, Rice still held a 3-2 advantage. A pair of RBI singles, one by Trei Cruz in the first and another by Aaron Beaulaurier in the second plus a wild pitch had put Rice ahead early. Then they turned to the bullpen for six outs.
One error and three hits allowed Western Kentucky to break things open against Kendal Jeffries who had been the Owls’ most trustworthy bullpen arm. After leading for seven innings, Rice saw the result flipped in less than 30 minutes, losing 6-3.
FRIDAY (GAME 2) | WKU 9 – Rice 5
A similar story materialized in the second half of the Friday doubleheader. Evan Kravetz threw five innings, striking out nine and allowing three runs. He’d had better days, but his solid outing was not the Owls’ undoing. It was the bullpen, again. This time Blair Lewis took the loss.
Lewis relieved Kravetz and retired two of the first three batters he faced. An error, followed by a walk and a hit by pitch put the fate of the game in jeopardy. With the bases loaded, WKU slugger Jake Sanford strode to the plate an uncorked a grand slam over the right-field fence. Rice would never recover, dropping the series.
SUNDAY | WKU 6 – Rice 4
Unlike the prior two games, Rice did not strike first in the series finale. WKU scratched across runs in the first, second and third innings, taking a 4-1 lead into the middle innings. Jackson Parthasarathy wouldn’t make it out of the fifth inning, being relieved in favor of Garrett Gayle after surrendering four runs in the first three innings.
With Gayle on the mound, the Owls traded runs. Following an RBI in the fifth by WKU’s Stanford, Cade Edwards doubled and Dominic Cox hit a sac fly to cut the home team’s advantage to 5-3. The squads each tacked on a single run over the remainder of the contest, with Rice falling short for the fourth consecutive game.
TAKEAWAYS | WKU wins series 3-0
1. Who can Bragga trust in the pen?
As recently as a week ago, Kendal Jeffries, Garrett Gayle and Blair Lewis were the Owls’ most trustworthy relief options. All three of them had regrettably rough outings this week, and were responsible, at least to some degree, for Rice losses.
Rice doesn’t have the depth behind them to make a quick fix. Ben Schragger, Jackson Tyner and Ben Content have had their chances – none have been able to consistently get outs. With Addison Moss on the mend, Rice is out of options.
Kel Bordwine’s strong start against Houston on Wednesday will put him in contention for relief minutes in the coming weeks. He got the final two outs on Sunday. Dalton Wood could be a candidate after his outing this week, too. The fact that few answers have been found this late into the season is frustrating. It’s an ever-present reminder the depth on this team has some ways to go before it’s back to the standard this program has enjoyed over the past several decades.
2. It’s time to go home
With the meaningful exception of the Old Dominion series, Rice has not been a good team away from home. The Owls swept the Monarchs, but are 6-11 away from Reckling Park with one series win in 2019. That .353 winning percentage contrasts sharply with the Owls’ home record of 13-15, a .464 winning percentage.
Rice can finish better than .500 at home if they sweep Southern Miss in their final home series. That’s a tall task, but equally as challenging as sweeping Louisiana Tech at home, a feat they achieved earlier this season. Rice has won three home series, playing comprehensively better baseball in Houston than anywhere else. They don’t get to bring the same dirt with them to the postseason, so they’d best take advantage of their own field while they can.
3. This team is running out of time to get in rhythm
On paper, a series against Western Kentucky’s porous pitching staff was exactly what this offense needed. After settling in on a starting nine, the Rice offense was beginning to up their production at the plate. They were getting hits. They just needed to convert those into runs. Rice scored some runs against Western Kentucky, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a shaky bullpen.
The same roster that swept Louisiana Tech at home crumbled on the road against a team squarely in the middle of the pack. Now Rice finds themselves further down the standings than they’d like. The Owls are one bad weekend away from finding themselves on the outside of the conference tournament looking in.
Which team shows up at home against Southern Miss next weekend? The answer to that question might determine whether or not Rice is playing baseball deep into May. As thing stands, they’ll enter their last home series in fifth place.