#18 Rice Baseball 2014 Preview

Rice Owls

Overall Rank: #18
Conference Rank: #1 Conference USA
#18 Rice Baseball 2014 Preview
Rice Team Page


Rice continues to operate at a level of consistency that not many other programs, not only in baseball, but other college sports, can reach. Following an 18th-straight season in which the Owls either won or shared a conference title, a 19th straight season of 40 wins and their 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, Wayne Graham has his team poised to add to all of those streaks with a large amount of notable returners.

2013: 44-20, 15-9
2013 Postseason: NCAA
Coach: Wayne Graham

Field Players:
Following his best season in terms of batting average (.320) while leading Rice in the category, Shane Hoelscher will look to continue leading the Owls. The senior infielder finished his 2013 campaign strong as he was named to both the Conference USA All-Tournament Team and NCAA All-Regional Team. Hoelscher was on his way to his best all-around season before an injury sidelined him in early March for more than a month. The senior did finish third on the team with a career-best on-base percentage (.401) and was fourth in slugging (.380). The team’s second-best hitter, in terms of average, is Michael Aquino, who batted .315 in 248 at-bats. The winner of the college edition of the Home Run Derby slugged nine homers in the regular season, while driving in a team-high 43 runs. The senior outfielder/designated hitter also led the Owls in slugging (.508) and total bases (126) and was second in hits with 78 and doubles with 13. Coach Graham, while losing his third-best hitter from 2013, does return his fourth through six best players in terms of average. Of note is Ford Stainback, a junior who hit .295 and collected a team-high 81 hits in 275 at-bats and sophomore Leon Byrd, a .275 hitter who posted a .420 on-base percentage and tied for a team best with 44 walks.

The biggest hurdle for the Owls in 2014 is likely replacing two-thirds of its rotation from a year ago. Austin Kubitza exits following his junior season to the major leagues; as does fellow weekend starter John Simms. Rice does welcome back its third weekend starter, Jordan Stephens, the most valuable player during the team’s regional in Eugene, who tied for 11th in the NCAA with 17 starts and was in the top 40 with 100 strikeouts. The junior was the Owls leader in innings pitched (118.2), and was second on the staff in wins (8) and starts. Returning at the backend of the staff is Zech Lemond, the team’s leader in earned run average with a 2.02 mark, while setting a new school record with 14 saves. The junior was also 7-2 in 32 appearances and was named an All-American.

Who to Watch:
Rice will need to add two new pitchers to its weekend rotation, but while he might not have been the star pitcher a year-ago, Jordan Stephens seems poised to step up as the team’s ace. The junior was really good during the team’s regional, as evident by his MVP selection. The native of Texas averaged more than 6.2 innings in his 17 starts and his opponents only hit .219. After a strong finish with in his four postseason outings, in which he put together a 2-0 record, 0.74 ERA and .165 opponents' average in  24.1 innings, the time looks good for Stephens to lead the way for Rice.

Final Projection:
At Rice, playing in the NCAA Tournament is a common occurrence and an expected one. With legendary coach Wayne Graham leading the way, Rice is always considered a national power and in the discussion as a team we could see in Omaha. While it might be commonly heard each year, Rice seems poised for a big year. The Owls bring back a strong offensive attack with five of their six best average hitters back in blue. The one area where a question mark comes up is pitching. Losing two pitchers who posted ERA of 2.06 and 2.51 is tough to replace and look past in projections. But as Jordan Stephens returns, and looks towards a big breakout season, the hope is his performance spreads among others. Don’t count out Rice and coach Graham as moving past the NCAA Tournament Regional level. A 20th-straight tournament appearance is highly likely in 2014.

Projected Postseason: NCAA Baseball Tournament

Returning Leaders:
At Bats: Ford Stainback, IF, 275
Hits: Ford Stainback, IF, 81
Home Runs: Michael Aquino, OF, 9
RBIs: Michael Aquino, OF, 43
Runs: Michael Aquino, OF, 45
Stolen Bases: Leon Byrd, IF/OF, 9

Wins: Jordan Stephens, P, 8
Innings Pitched: Jordan Stephens, P, 118.2
Strikeouts: Jordan Stephens, P, 100
Saves: Zech Lemond, P, 14

Madness 2014 MLB Draft Rankings:
#81 Zech Lemond


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