Owls Baseball: Pitching Is a Beautiful Thing
It's been a tough season for the Rice Owls baseball squad -- far tougher than they bargained for. Anthony Rendon has spent much of the season at DH because of shoulder issues. Outfielder Michael Fuda has been on the shelf because of an ankle problem. Centerfielder Jeremy Rathjen is gone for the season because of an ACL injury.
John Royal Shortstop Derek Hamilton charges in to make the play on Saturday afternoon
The pitching, aside from Austin Kubitza, has been inconsistent, with guys like John Simms moving in and out of the starting rotation, Mathew Reckling moving from Friday to Sunday to midweek then back to midweek starter, and Chase McDowell moving into the starting rotation when not playing in centerfield for Rathjen -- that is, until McDowell injured his pitching elbow on Saturday afternoon.
When the Rice Owls hosted Louisiana Tech at Reckling Park this weekend, the word "sweep" was probably not foremost in the minds of the Owls. Getting the pitching staff settled was probably evident. Getting some offense, also important. Winning the series, yeah, that'd be nice. But sweep, probably not.
However, the Rice Owls came out and swept Louisiana Tech this weekend to improve their season record to 13-9 with two games to go before conference play gets underway. The Owls had tremendous pitching from all three starters this weekend, and the bullpen also did some strong work in all three games, especially on Saturday when McDowell had to leave early.
The game of the weekend was undoubtedly Friday's 5-1 win. Freshman Kubitza once again dominated the opposition, pitching eight innings while striking out ten and giving up only two walks and one unearned run. Yet, the Owls trailed 1-0 going into their half of the eighth inning as McDowell walked, Rendon singled and catcher Craig Manuel reached on a bunt single before Michael Ratterree doubled in McDowell and Rendon for the first two runs of a five-run inning.
"Right now he's probably as good as anybody in the country," Owls coach Wayne Graham said of Kubitza. "Look at his stats....lots of strikeouts, almost no walks. The thing we asked him to do, because we knew he had the possibility of a good breaking ball, was to work on it, and his breaking ball [Friday] was major league. He's throwing a slider/slurve that has good tilt, throwing it anywhere from between 80-87, I even saw an 87 on it last night. That's hard. That's really good."
McDowell was dominating in his first four innings on Saturday afternoon before leaving the game in the fifth inning with an injury to his pitching elbow. The Owls bullpen came in and finished things up, with Tyler Duffey and Tony Cingrani throwing four and two-thirds innings of one hit ball that included no runs, one walk and seven strikeouts. The Owls grabbed the 1-0 lead in the first inning when Shane Hoelscher doubled in Daniel Gonzales-Luna, then put the game away in the fifth as they scored three times to cement the 5-2 win.
John Royal Anthony Rendon with the steal of second on Saturday
"We've been throwing real well for the past week, I'd say," Cingrani said of the bullpen. "Everybody just keeps building off of everybody else, and everybody just keeps throwing well, and that's all we've got to do."
And Graham thinks the bullpen has been improving for awhile now.
"Here lately, they've been good," Graham said. "The only bad outing was Duffey's, here lately, that's the only flaw lately in the bullpen that I know of...it just seems like they've been good for quite a while. The pitching's been good for quite a while."
Then came Matthew Reckling's performance yesterday, which included three innings of perfect ball and six and one-third innings of no-hit baseball as the Owls won 10-3. Reckling has battled this season, battled so much that he was demoted from Friday starter to mid-week starter, but catcher Craig Manuel said that Reckling has learned to just trust his stuff and attacking batters. Reckling attributed that to better focus on the mound and his desire to build off what the rest of the starting staff was able to do over the weekend.
"I think a lot of focus and just knowing what I want to do with the ball," Reckling said of his performance yesterday, and his improvement yesterday. "How the ball moves and what I want to do with it. Just attacking guys."
The Owls showed much improvement over the weekend, but they're not out of the woods, not by a long shot. Rice hopes to have Michael Fuda back this weekend, and they hope that Rendon might be able to return to third base. But McDowell is currently day-to-day, and that hurts them both in the outfield and on the mound, and they still need to do something about the inconsistent hitting.
Still, any team will take a weekend where they go 3-0 behind exceptional pitching. And that's just what the Owls had this weekend.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
The Owls travel to Lamar on Tuesday, then take on the Houston Cougars on Wednesday at Reckling Park. Coach Graham says it will be pitching by committee for both of those games....The Cougars, meanwhile, won two of three games from Kent State this weekend to improve their record to 11-10....And speaking of the University of Houston athletic program, our condolences go out to the school, the program and, most importantly, the family of swimming coach Mark Taylor. Taylor, 50, died of an apparent heart attack in Austin on Friday night.