Rice baseball is still working to come to terms with a disheartening 2020 season. What hope can be gathered from the Owls’ 2-14 start?
Baseball is, by its very nature, a forgiving sport. Hitters who manage one hit in three trips to the plate are lauded. Pitchers need only get through two-thirds of a game with three runs or fewer to be awarded a “quality start”. All of the stats and measures are accrued over months. That allows for outliers and streaks (both good and bad) to be accounted for. For better or worse, sample sizes are large. Not for Rice baseball in 2020.
The Owls’ season ended with a discouraging 2-14 record. Four weeks after a Valentine’s Day battle with in-state power Texas, Rice has one series win to show for their efforts and many excruciating losses. Rice led second-ranked Texas Tech by four runs twice in their final weekend, but found a way to lose both games. They were bludgeoned at home by Louisiana and swept on the road by UC Irvine.
Outside of a two-of-three series win over Missouri State, there wasn’t much positive in the box scores for Rice in their abbreviated 2020 campaign.
The finality of that gut-wrenching resume is what bothers Rice baseball head coach Matt Bragga the most. “It isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish,” said the second-year skipper. “Now obviously we want to start hot finish hot. That’s what we’re working towards. But right now all we have is a start. We didn’t get the opportunity to finish.”
If Rice proved anything in their first year under Bragga, it was that ability to finish. Some of the Owls’ best baseball transpired in the second half of the season. From March 29th on, Rice swept Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech. They also took two of three from Southern Miss.
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In May they clinched the Silver Glove and won two games in the Conference USA Tournament. The same team that committed eight errors in a February game against Arizona left Biloxi with the best fielding percentage of any team in the conference tournament.
Last season provides no prescriptive effect as to how the 2020 campaign would have gone. But robbing this team of the opportunity to test their resiliency — although the right decision, considering the circumstances — still stings. “This was a club that had a chance to finish pretty darn strong,” remarked Bragga. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.
A brutal schedule, combined with injuries to Roel Garcia, Dalton Wood and Jack Conlon, pushed the already thin pitching staff beyond their capabilities. Good starts were spoiled by an overmatched bullpen. Excellent outings on the mound were wasted by a lineup that could not get the clutch hit, no matter how hard they tried. In all actuality, this was as close to the worst-scenario for the 2020 Rice baseball season as could have been possibly imagined.
Rice was able to show tangible year-over-year improvement with their gloves. Rice was ninth in C-USA with a .965 fielding percentage last season. They improved to sixth this year, fielding at a .969 clip, a hair under Bragga’s self-imposed goal of .970. A 5-error outing against Louisiana was the only truly awful defensive game they played in their 16 contests.
The hitting and the pitching objectively got worse. Injuries and the losses of Matt Canterino and Evan Kravetz hurt the Owls significantly on the mound. The bats weren’t nearly consistent enough.
Bragga hopes to turn that negative into a positive when that small sample size is expanded in 2021. “This team was way better than 2-14,” he said knowingly.
He could be onto something. Simple regression to the mean, a few more bounces in the Owls’ favor in their next 16 games could paint a very different picture. That’s especially true if Rice retains and rejuvenates their injured pitchers and adds what Bragga believes could be the most talented signing class he’s ever constructed.
“As much as it’s overused, it is a process,” Bragga admitted. If we learned anything in 2020, the Owls are closer to square one than the finished product. That’s okay, but it also means there’s plenty more work to do.