Rain, snow or shine, Rice baseball is set to begin their 2021 season soon. Here’s a rundown of the Owls on the mound and in the batter’s box.
The long wait is finally over for Rice baseball. The Owls saw their 2020 season come to a premature end because of COVID-19 and they’re anxious to get back onto the field at Reckling Park this weekend.
The pitching staff
The weeks leading up to the regular season is really where the rubber meets the road when it comes to how Rice baseball will deploy its pitchers. Head coach Matt Bragga has a general idea for which guys will get the nods to be at the top of the pitching rotation, but the finalized plan regarding how to divvy up the innings are still coming together.
Bragga knows he’ll need almost every capable arm in some capacity this season. The revised 2021 schedule includes grueling four-game weekends, including a Saturday double header. As a result, it’s going to require teams to find at least 15 more outs every weekend. That means more arms.
“I think this year could lend itself to playing more guys and pitching more guys,” Bragga said, going on to note a particularly important truth, “Our depth is definitely better.”
Projected weekend rotation
- Roel Garcia, RHP
- Blake Brogdon, RHP
- Mitchell Holcomb, RHP
- Brandon Deskins, LHP
Next up, Possible midweek starters
- Alex DeLeon, RHP
- Dillon Janac, RHP
- Garrett Zaskoda, RHP
The top of the rotation isn’t much of a surprise. Roel Garcia has the arm talent to be a true ace for Rice when he’s healthy. According to Bragga, Garcia feels as good as he’s felt in the past several years and “a Friday-night type of young man” and “a game one starter”. Having him fully healthy would be huge for the Owls.
After Garcia, Brogdon will look to build on a strong, albeit short, 2020 campaign. He went five innings in three of his five starts and had 18 strikeouts 19.1 innings. An improvement in command and a few less walks are key things for him to take the next step in his game this season.
Rounding out the rotation will be some combination of intriguing young arms or veteran pieces. Of that group, transfer Mitchell Holcomb looks like the most likely to clinch a weekend spot. A four-year weekend starter at Penn, Holcomb has impressed in his time at South Main, particularly catching Bragga’s eye with his superb command.
The last spot truly is up for grabs. Deskins was electric in fall intrasquad practices. DeLeon was the opening day starter a year ago. Janich is an intriguing freshman with a power arm and a great slider. Zaskoda is a bit of a wild card, but finished second on the team in ERA this fall (behind Holcomb) and showed tremendous improvement from his freshman season.
At first glance, the rotation lacks the punch of Rice rotations of old, but there’s still a lot to like. That said, the Owls have more options in the rotation than they did last spring. If Garcia steps into his role as an ace and someone else seizes the No. 2 role, the depth should be good enough to keep Rice in games and win a few of them almost on their own.
Key bullpen pieces (in no particular order)
- Dalton Wood, RHP
- Drake Greenwood, RHP
- Kel Bordwine, RHP
- Matthew Linskey, RHP
- Micah Davis, RHP
- Reed Gallant, RHP
- Christian Cienfuegos, RHP
- AC Plum, RHP
- Caleb Burgess, RHP
Rice baseball could be in line for a step change in their bullpen production compared to where things stood when Bragga arrived on campus. 16 of the 20 pitchers than threw in the fall hit speeds of at least 90 miles per hour. Bragga himself said, “that doesn’t win you games,” but it’s “an extra weapon that you have.”
That starts with Dalton Wood. A power armed righty that missed most of last year recovering from injury, he has the potential to be a shutdown option out of the pen Rice was earnestly searching for last spring.
After wood, guys like Greenwood and Bordwine should see work in the middle innings. Both have starting experience and have proven to be dependable for the Owls in the past. Others like Cienfuegos and Plum have shown flashes, but hope to build upon that with improved consistency.\
Freshman Reed Gallant, Matthew Linskey and Micah Davis have inserted their names into the mix. Both stood out during scrimmage outings. Rice will need someone to shut things down in key moments. Could Davis’ and his 96 mph fastball get the call? It’s certainly possible.
Having this many options is a good problem for Bragga to have. As with the back end of the rotation, the key will be finding the handful of most dependable options as quickly as possible. This is a spot where the incoming freshman class could shine. The quantity of top-notch arm talent is exciting. Getting a few key innings out of the up-and-coming arms could elevate the whole group tremendously.
There will be several difficult decision Rice baseball head coach Matt Bragga will have to make before the Owls’ regular season arrived on Feb. 19. Piecing together the majority of the starting lineup shouldn’t be one of them. As Bragga himself admitted the lineup is, “truthfully, not that big of a secret.”
The straightforwardness of the Owls’ attack is generated by a strong contingent of returning veterans plus a few new live bats that could prove to be difference makers for Rice this spring.
1B – Austin Bullman
2B – Cade Edwards
SS – Hal Hughes
3B – Brayden Comeaux
C – Will Karp / Justin Collins
RF – Guy Garibay
CF – Connor Walsh
LF – Bradley Gneiting
DH – Nathan Becker
There’s certainly no mystery here. With the exception of Trei Cruz, a third round MLB Draft selection of the Detroit Tigers last year, the remainder of the Rice infield returns for 2021 thanks in part to the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players. Upperclassmen Austin Bulman, Cade Edwards and Brayden Comeaux all figure to be top of the order bats with plus fielding attributes.
The newcomer on the dirt is LSU transfer Hal Hughes. The junior started 63 games as a true freshman for the Tigers and 109 games in his LSU career. His biggest asset is his glove. He holds a career .955 fielding percentage and has position flexibility, able to slide over to third or second should the Owls’ need it.
Designated Hitter and Catcher
As it has been over the past two years under Bragga, the designated hitter spot will likely start as a rotation of sorts until someone seizes the job (hopefully) for good. True freshman Tyler LaRue started at DH on Opening Day last spring, making it seem reasonable to expect another up-and-coming bat will get a crack at the spot early in the season. Freshman Nathan Becker, a highly-regarded first base recruit, is the favorite to get the first look.
Rice baseball could be turning to a new face at catcher in 2021. Bragga indicated he expected newcomer Will Karp, a grad transfer from Haverford, to get the nod behind the dish. Former starter Justin Collins’ availability was in question. While Bragga did go as far as sharing that his absence was “COVID-related”, he did not go into details. The positive note on the catching front was the impressive spring Karp has put together.
The outfield was somewhat of a work-in-progress last year, but Rice will be much deeper at the position this time around. True freshman Guy Garibay and redshirt freshman Connor Walsh, an Ole Miss transfer, both come to Rice with high expectations and should be fixtures in the lineup from the start. Both swing the bat well.
As was the case last season, left field should prove to be more contentious. There are a host of guys who will probably cycle through that position with repeat outings possible for those who earn extended playing time. Veteran Bradley Gneiting will get the first crack at the job and will probably see some time at designated hitter as well. Other returners like Justin Dunlap, Antonio Cruz and Daniel Hernandez are thought to be in the mix.