The No. 4 Rice baseball team has yet to play a single game outside the state of Texas, but the Owls will be in for their toughest test of the season this weekend. In their first excursion from the Lone Star State, they will meet the No. 2 Cardinal at Sunken Diamond for a three-game series.
And though Stanford (11-1) has already swept a pair of opponents that were ranked in the top 15 when they made their trips to the Farm (and have since dropped in the standings considerably), Rice seems like the real deal through 14 games this season, going 12-2 and winning all nine of its home contests.
This will be the Cardinal’s last chance to work out any kinks before its conference season kicks off against No. 29 USC and No. 11 Arizona on back-to-back weekends. It’s hard to find much to nitpick so far, though, as the squad ranks fourth in the nation in runs scored and has two starters amongst the top 15 strikeout men in the country, lefthander Brett Mooneyham (28 strikeouts) and righthander Mark Appel (26).
A week ago on Friday, Stanford fell for the first time this season to unranked Fresno State (5-7), and if the Owls are going to leave Sunken Diamond with a series win, they’re going to have to use the Bulldogs’ 7-4 win as a model of how to dismantle the dominant Cardinal.
Fresno State’s seven runs are notable in and of themselves—Stanford has only allowed more than five on two occasions this season—yet the fact that they all came off projected No. 1 pick Appel is even more striking. Appel’s outing wasn’t all bad, as he struck out 11 in eight innings and gave up just one hit per frame, but the difference in the game was the Bulldogs’ four-run sixth inning, a rare crooked number in the box score for a Stanford team that allows a run just once per three frames. Rice will have to duplicate the breakthrough offense it came up with in its 11-1 win over Tennessee on Sunday if it wants any chance of shaking the Cardinal’s solid pitching staff.
Another key for the Owls will be shutting down the heart of the Stanford lineup just like Fresno State did a week ago, when the Cardinal’s 5-6-7-8 batters had no hits, struck out five combined times and reached base only once on a walk to junior catcher Eric Smith. The four men in those slots last Friday—junior second baseman Kenny Diekroeger, junior designated hitter Christian Griffiths, sophomore shortstop Lonnie Kauppila and Smith—have accounted for 38 RBI and 52 hits this season. In Stanford’s 16-0 bounce-back win on Saturday, the group knocked in six runs and reached base seven times.
Rice’s starters are more than capable of giving their opponents trouble, as this weekend’s likely rotation of senior Matthew Reckling, sophomore Austin Kubitza and freshman Jordan Stephens have yet to drop a decision this season. Reckling—whose grandfather’s name is on the Owls’ stadium—has allowed just 10 hits in 22 innings pitched en route to an 0.82 ERA this season, including a stellar performance in Rice’s 2-0 win over Dallas Baptist two weeks ago in which he gave up just two hits in 8.1 innings.
Senior Michael Fuda, batting in the three-hole, paces the Owls at the plate. After missing a month of his 2011 season with a hamstring injury and hitting just .255, the centerfielder now leads the squad with a .424 average and 11 RBI, not to mention six doubles.
Rice is also by far the best defensive team Stanford will have faced this season, and the only squad on the Cardinal’s schedule so far that has a better fielding percentage, .977 to Stanford’s .971, putting the Owls in the top 30 nationally. By contrast, Texas sits at 185th and Vanderbilt at 257th with respective .958 and .943 percentages.
Accordingly, the Cardinal can’t expect to get many of the errors it took advantage of in its early series. The squad will need a lift from junior third baseman Stephen Piscotty, and though the preseason All-American’s 21 RBI are still a team-best, his pace has slowed a bit after a monstrous 11-RBI first week of the season.
Stanford will once again try to lean on the top-to-bottom offensive consistency, as all but two starting batters are hitting .300 or better and six have driven in more than 10 runs. The Owls can’t boast quite the same hitting prowess, with five spots in the lineup hitting .267 or worse so far.
Both of these offenses tend to fade in the final innings—in part because of late pinch-hitters who swing for the fences but often strike out—with each team scoring 43 percent of its runs in the first three frames. Interestingly enough, however, Rice is a perfect 3-0 when its opponents score in the first inning, a feat accomplished eight times by the Cardinal, which has yet to lose in that situation.
Tonight’s game begins at 5:30 p.m. before a 1 p.m. Saturday start and Sunday’s finale at noon.