Rice baseball picked up one win at the Shriners Classic, a bright spot in an up-and-down weekend for the Owls.
THREE FOR THE ROAD
1. Better at the top … still getting there at the bottom
Rice baseball had a top-heavy lineup last year but was supposed to be more balanced in 2021 with the influx of a strong recruiting class. There’s no doubt the lineup is better than it was, but there’s still some work to do.
The Owls had two players finish the shortened 2020 season with a batting average better than .280. Shortstop Trei Cruz, now in the Detroit Tigers system, was one of two regulars with an OPS better than .750.
This year seven players are batting .280 or better. Six have an OPS better than .750. Justin Dunlap and Guy Garibay, two of the Owls’ most productive hitters so far this season, have only seen limited action. The top half is going to be good.
Finding production from the 7-8-9 spot might be what stands between this offense being good and taking the next step to great. Saturday’s 16 run outburst was a positive development. But Sunday’s quick recession was a sobering reminder things are still a work-in-progress.
2. Still searching for reliable pitching
A true shutdown option out of the bullpen hasn’t risen to the surface quite yet. The Owls have a stable of talented arms that can throw with velocity, but many of them are still young with room to grow into their roles on South Main. What Rice needs are a few key arms they can turn to in a bind and get outs.
Dillon Janac threw another scoreless inning on Saturday and tossed his hat into the ring. He and Dalton Wood have had multiple outings without having any runs charged against them. Reed Gallant was in that conversation too, prior to Sunday’s outing. But after that, the bullpen has been hit and miss.
Look for a guy like Brandon Deskins to bounce back, but it’s also possible we still haven’t seen some of the guys who will throw some important innings once conference play arrives.
3. Halfway to C-USA play
There’s no way to ensure Rice baseball will play every game as scheduled from here onward, but as things currently stand the Owls are halfway through conference play. They’ve outdone themselves in the win column compared to last season, but that wasn’t a very tall mountain to climb. To date, they’re more or less beaten who they should beat and fallen to teams that project to be better than them.
They’ll have a good mix of opponents over the next few weeks, ending with a four-game weekend series against Southern and a midweek road trip to Texas A&M. This team needs a jolt, either through a notable upset of the Aggies or an emphatic weekend outing. They’ll have opportunities. They need to take advantage of them.
If there were a few key objectives to sort out of the next two weeks, they’d include formalizing the weekend rotation, identifying two to three “shut down” options out of the bullpen and finding better production with runners in scoring position. Those are some big asks, but none of those items seem to be an insurmountable challenge.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | Sam Houston 12 – Rice 4
Head coach Matt Bragga made the move to rotation forward one day, throwing Blake Brogdon on Friday. The plan was twofold: get one step closer to Roel Garcia being the Friday guy and have a better start on the mound during the weekend.
Brogdon had his moments but was fairly shaky. He left midway through the fifth inning with three runs charged against him. Brandon Deskins would allow a pair of inherited runners to score, putting Rice in a 5-2 hole from which they never recovered. Guy Garibay and Bradley Gneiting homered, but the Owls lost 12-4.
SATURDAY | Rice 16 – Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 5
Rice entered their Saturday tilt with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi averaging five runs per game. They surpassed that number in the fourth and sixth innings alone, ending the afternoon with 16 runs on 16 hits, both season highs. The game after seven-innings by a tournament run rule.
Justin Dunlap went deep. Bradley Gneiting, Antonio Cruz, Will Karp and Justin Long all had three-hit days. Starting pitcher Roel Garcia allowed five runs in five innings, far from his best day in the office, but battled to keep his team in the game before the offense caught fire and won the day.
SUNDAY | Texas State 9 – Rice 1
Reed Gallant encountered some early trouble in the tournament finale, allowing three runs before catching an early hook in favor of Mitchell Holcomb, who failed to stem the bleeding. That 7-0 run put a damper on any remaining elation from the run-rule victory the day prior.
Braden Comeaux stole a run back on a ground out in the seventh, but Texas State got it right back. Guy Garibay made his collegiate pitching debut and picked up two strikeouts, but it was a rather underwhelming night for both the bats and the arms.