Riding high after a series win over Southern Miss, Rice baseball was stopped stone-cold in their tracks by Marshall, narrowly clinching a CUSA Tournament spot.
The week began on a high note, with Rice baseball besting rival Houston to clinch the Silver Glove Series. After the Tuesday night victory, Rice hit the road to finish conference play with a three-game set in Huntington, West Virginia. Both Marshall and Rice were fighting for a spot in the Conference Tournament. Rice clinched their berth on Friday but Marshall had more work to do, eventually locking up a spot of their own after taking three straight from Rice.
Both the Owls and the Thundering Herd earned spots in Biloxi this coming week. Here’s how the series unfolded with three overarching themes as Rice enters the conference tournament.
THURSDAY | Marshall 5, Rice 4 (11)
Rice used a big fifth inning to jump ahead in the series opener. Trei Cruz broke the deadlock with an RBI single to center, scoring Aaron Beaulaurier. Andrew Dunlap followed with a three-run bomb to break things open.
Matt Canterino was in top form on the mound, holding Marshall to two earned runs in seven innings with nine strikeouts. He handed the ball to Kendal Jefferies at the start of the eighth. Jefferies, and later Garrett Gayle, were unable to hold the line. Marshall walked it off in the 11th on a two-out RBI single after holding Rice scoreless through the final six innings.
FRIDAY | Marshall 4, Rice 3 (10)
Kel Bordwine took the ball on Friday after Evan Kravetz was a late scratch. Even with the deviation in the weekend rotation, the Owls weren’t threatened early in game two. Bordwine was superb, throwing seven innings of one-run ball. The Marshall offense mustered five hits off the short-notice starter, allowing the Rice offense to slowly build a lead.
Rice climbed ahead 3-0, courtesy of a few impactful extra-base hits. Bealaurier doubled in the third, scoring Antonio Cruz. Bradley Gneiting and Antonio Cruz added solo home runs in the fourth and seventh innings, respectively.
Marshall wouldn’t score until the eighth, leveling the score at 3-3 after Blair Lewis surrendered a 2-run home run. That score would hold for one more inning until Marshall scored a final, unearned run on an infield error to win the game in the 10th.
SATURDAY | Marshall 5, Rice 4
Marshall struck first in the finale, taking a 1-0 lead on a home run in the first inning. Playing from behind for the first time in regulation, Rice was forced to muster a comeback. Trei Cruz gave Rice the lead with a fourth-inning double. Justin Collins extended the advantage to 3-1 with a solo home run in the sixth. Jackson Parthasarathy powered through the Marshall lineup as Bordwine and Canterino had before. Things were looking good.
Yet again, Rice took a lead into the later innings. Yet again, Marshall found an equalizer. The Thundering Herd knotted the game at 3-3 in the eighth, but this time Rice punched back, squeezing out the go-ahead run via a sac bunt in the top of the ninth inning. The small ball wouldn’t be enough, though, as Marshall tied and went on to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, their third walk-off win of the weekend.
TAKEAWAYS | Marshall wins series 3-0
1. Who will step up in the bullpen?
The Owls most trustworthy bullpen arms failed them in big spots against Marshall. Staked to late leads with few outs to get, nobody was able to come up with an answer. That’s not a problem the Owls were hoping to run into this late in the season, but May is the time to make the best with what you have, not to reinvent the wheel.
Coach Bragga could try to implement a quicker hook or experiment with bumping someone like Bordwine from a spot starter to a bullpen piece. Bragga will undoubtedly push all the buttons he thinks will make the most sense for the team in its current state, but he’s not able to step on the mound and physically throw the pitches.
Those same players who had rough weekends have proven capable in the past. Jefferies and Gayle have combined for nine saves, 100 percent of the team’s total on the season. And that’s the peculiar thing about baseball. The sport built upon failure will put these same pitchers in high leverage situations again, soon. They’re going to get another chance. If they capitalize on their opportunities in Biloxi, their shortcomings in Huntington will fade, quickly.
2. It’s going to be a short week if something doesn’t change
Even without a win in their final regular-season series, Rice qualified for the Conference USA Baseball Tournament. The starting pitching showcased their extraordinary depth over the weekend, digging beyond their typical weekend trio and still producing three quality starts. The bullpen and the offense can’t ask for much better than they got against Marshall, setting the stage for a game of Russian Roulette going forward.
Assuming a strong start on the mound, Rice needs to find a way to avoid joint implosions by the bullpen and the lineup. If one of those two units can produce at a level commensurate to the starting pitching, Rice has a shot to advance deep into the conference tournament. If both units fade into a repeat of this weekend. Bang. Season over.
3. CUSA Tournament set
If there is any good fortune to be found in the weekend sweep, Rice draws a familiar opponent in the opening game of the CUSA Tournament. Rice took two of three from Southern Miss a week ago, relying on their now embraced pattern of high-caliber pitching and just-enough offense.
UTSA’s loss on Saturday might prove to be fortuitous for the Owls, too. A win by the Roadrunners would have dropped Rice to the 8-seed where they’d have met 1-seed FAU in Biloxi. FAU swept Rice earlier this season and the games weren’t as close as the three Rice loss to Marshall. Nevertheless, Rice has its opponent. Now they need to execute.
ON DECK | vs Southern Miss (Wed) in CUSA Tournament
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