Rice was doomed this weekend by the same factors that harmed the team most of the season. The starting pitching throughout the weekend against LSU was horrendous. That meant that Rice had to dip into its bullpen early, and the relievers were not as talented as in years past.
Then there was the defense, which, especially in Friday’s 12-6 loss to Southeastern Louisiana, made the team’s early-season defensive struggles look like a minor hiccup. Couple those together in one game, as on Friday, when Rice blew through five pitchers (two of whom didn’t even record an out) while committing seven errors, and observers who had not watched the team the past month would be shocked that the Owls had won 18 of their last 22 games.
“I think it was just one of those games where everything that could go wrong defensively did go wrong.” Graham said Friday night. “Some people that can play very good defense didn’t do it today. I told them go home, look in the mirror and figure it out, and get ready to play tomorrow. Fortunately, we get to play tomorrow.”
But Rice quickly fell behind by a 5-0 score to TSU on Saturday afternoon. The pitching underperformed, with starter Zach Esquivel getting the hook in the second inning. But the Owls then did what they did during the season and started hitting, winning the game 13-6 after a 90-minute rain delay in the fifth inning — the next-to-last play before the tarp came out was DH Andrew Dunlap slamming a home run into the left-field bleachers to tie the game.
“I told Esquivel [before the game] that if you can’t get the curveball over, they were going to kill him,” Graham said. “I didn’t realize how prophetic that was. He couldn’t get the curveball over, and they hit him.”
Though the Owls came back for the win, Esquivel's getting beat up really hurt the Rice pitching staff. Willy Amador had to pitch 3 2/3 innings before being shut down during the rain delay, then the team’s best reliever, Glenn Otto, pitched three innings out of the delay. Those two were able to shut TSU down, but in having to pitch them as long as he did, Graham pretty much had to deprive his bullpen of its best pitchers for Sunday.
But that’s been Rice’s MO for the past month: Win today and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Graham patched together a pitching staff for yesterday’s first game, coming back to defeat Southern Louisiana 9-5 behind Kendal Jefferies (who got the start and pitched 5 1/3 innings) and Dane Myers. Myers not only pitched 3 2/3 innings Sunday afternoon, but also started the game at third base, had two hits for four RBI and slammed a three-run homer high into the batters eye in deep centerfield. It had been unknown until just before that game who Rice would start, with Graham having said on Saturday night it would be Jefferies, then listing Myers as the starter until shortly before game time when he officially went with Jefferies.
“We were thinking about the weather, really,” Graham said of the decision to start Jefferies. “And when we thought about it — Dane hadn’t worked long all year. I thought Kendal had a little better chance to get five or even six [innings]. You could see Dane was probably pretty tired in the last inning.”
But things can only be patched together for so long. And when the opponent is LSU, judged by the NCAA to be one of the eight best teams in college baseball, having a thrown-together pitching staff is just not good enough. Especially when the defensive bugaboos reappear. So Sunday's 5-0 loss to LSU (with Rice leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning) should have been expected, but the fact that the Owls made it that far in the first place is something that should be celebrated.
“You saw it,” Graham said of Friday’s loss. “It was ugly. [But] we feel like we can come back. We’ve come back before. A lot. Early in the year, we had games like this. I think they know how to overcome that and come back from that, and we’ll do everything we can to get ready to play.”
The Owls did come back to play. Just like the Owls came back to play baseball in April after being left for dead. Just like the Owls did in sweeping through the Conference USA tournament and winning the tourney championship because that was the only way they were going to make a regional.
The saying around Rice is “Rice Fight, Never Die.” The Owls might have lost to LSU Sunday. But Rice never stopped fighting.