John Royal Michael Ratterree makes the throw to first for an early out on Saturday.
The Owls are a team of injured players trying to patch together a starting lineup in any manner possible. And after losing Friday's conference opener to UCF by the score of 7-2, the Owls really needed a win on Saturday to have a chance of winning the series and maintaining some sense of equilibrium while dealing with the plethora of injuries that has beset this club.
Abe Gonzales sensed this urgency and pitched a career-high 6.1 innings while surrendering only four hits, one run and zero walks while striking out two as the Owls got the 6-2 win over the Knights. Sticking to a strict game plan devised by Owls coach Wayne Graham and to which catcher Craig Manuel -- who came into the game as a pinch hitter in the second inning -- made sure he adhered, Gonzales delivered exactly as Graham desired while making his push for one of the spots that have opened up in the starting rotation.
"Coach Graham was very specific about what he wanted me to do," Gonzales said Saturday afternoon. "Fortunately I was able to execute it. We felt like we had a great game plan, and it turns out we sure did."
Gonzales was not the only one to deliver for the depleted Owls. Saturday was supposed to be Manuel's day off as Graham doesn't like for him to catch all three weekend games. But Manuel happens to be one of the team's more dependable hitters right now, and with Anthony Rendon having to DH because of continued shoulder problems, Graham had no choice but to stick him back in at catcher when he felt the need to capitalize on a golden scoring opportunity.
"I wasn't going to waste a card today," Graham said of pinch hitting Manuel in the second inning. "Not a single card in my hand. And if I thought there was a real good chance to drive in a run, I was bringing Craig in."
And Manuel was prepared to get into the game.
"Right before the first pitch, Coach Graham came up to me and was like, me and [outfielder Michael] Fuda, be ready to pinch hit at any time," Manuel said. "Could be the first inning, could be the last inning. So I was sitting in the dugout doing the tendencies chart with my batting gloves on, and he's like -- he looks over at me when [starting left fielder Michael] Aquino comes up, he's like, what are you doing, I'm ready. I went in there -- I was doing the tendencies chart, so I knew [the UCF starter had] been throwing first pitch fast balls away to every batter, and I was like, I can hit a first pitch fast ball away, and I didn't miss it."
John Royal First baseman J.T. Chargois lunges for the ball to get the out on Saturday.
"He said it was killing him. It's not necessarily -- it could be adhesions turning loose..." Graham said after the game. "That could be just adhesions turning loose. We'll know in the next couple of days because he turned a couple loose in practice just to see. And a lot of times, that is the way it is. The odds are decent that that might be true. When you had an injury that was pretty traumatic...It could happen. Otherwise we're going to have to go with what we got."
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And what the Owls are going with is freshman Shane Hoelscher, who has been growing as a player every game. But that doesn't help the depleted outfield, where an injured Michael Fuda has been struggling to return from a hamstring injury. Or where Jeremy Rathjen is out for the season with an ACL injury. And Hoelscher can't help the rotation that is still trying to fill the hole left by losing Chase McDowell to Tommy John surgery, though Gonzales is doing his best to fill that role.
But despite the best efforts of Gonzales and Manuel on Saturday, the Owls lost the series to UCF, losing 5-4 yesterday to lose the series. This isn't how the Owls anticipated the season going. But if there's one team that can rise above this adversity, it's the Rice Owls.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
Rice plays five games this week, hosting the Cougars tomorrow night at 6:30 and traveling to Huntsville to play Sam Houston State at 6:30 on Wednesday night before hosting Marshall for three games this weekend -- 6:30 on Friday, 1:00 on Saturday, and 10:00 a.m. on Sunday....Michael Fuda was able to start in center yesterday, and Matthew Reckling made the start for the Owls.