Wayne’s World: 2018 Rice Thresher baseball preview
Last year was a tale of two seasons for Rice baseball. On April 16, Rice was blown out 17-6 by the University of Southern Mississippi, falling to 13-25 on the season and 4-11 in conference play. The Owls had never had a losing season under head coach Wayne Graham’s command, but for the first time in almost 25 years, it seemed like they were going to miss the NCAA tournament. But just as quickly as they had fallen, Rice came roaring back. All of a sudden, the wins started mounting. First a weekend sweep, then four consecutive series victories. By the time the dust had settled five weeks later, the Owls had finished the regular season on a 14-4 tear, earning themselves a berth in the Conference USA Tournament. On May 28, they found themselves staring down a familiar foe in the championship final: Southern Miss, the same team that had sunk them to their season’s lowest point just over a month ago. This time, the Owls flipped the script as junior outfielder Ryan Chandler smacked a walk-off single to give them the win, guaranteeing Rice a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd year in a row. The comeback was complete.
Though Rice eventually lost in the regional round of the tournament, Graham said the team gained valuable experience through their season turnaround.
“[Last season] reinforced everything: the value of persistence, determination, being ready to play every day, all that,” Graham said. “Not getting too down or too up. [Like] the serenity prayer: Control what you can, and don’t let it bother you what you can’t control.”
“We came up together with a team meeting and said that we’re not gonna let this [losing] happen, that we have a tradition to uphold here at Rice, and we have to get it together and start winning,” Chandler, now a senior, said. “Kind of a change in attitude, embodied more of a team philosophy, and it paid off for us in the end.”
The question now becomes whether the Owls can channel that second-half momentum into a strong season this year, given that the team experienced its fair share of changes during the offseason. Junior pitchers Glen Otto and Dane Myers were both selected in the first six rounds of the 2017 Major League Baseball amateur draft, and junior second baseman Tristan Gray joined them in the draft shortly afterward. Senior outfielders Charlie Warren and Dayne Wunderlich and graduate infielder Darryn Sheppard all graduated, leaving Rice with a total of four spots to fill in the starting lineup and two spots to fill in the pitching rotation. While the prognosis wasn’t a complete rebuild, Rice had a lot of work to do in the offseason to try and keep the team on track.
The first step came with the new class of recruits. The Owls picked up several freshmen who are expected to be immediate contributors, including second baseman Trei Cruz, outfielder Dominic Cox, catcher Justin Collins and pitcher Dane Acker. Rice also added sophomore third baseman Braden Comeaux as a junior college transfer. According to junior pitcher Ricardo Salinas, the incoming class is poised to make an immediate impact.
“I think a lot of [the] freshmen coming in are definitely going to step up and help us,” Salinas said. “We’ve just got to stay hungry and stay determined.”
For the second straight year, the Owls’ lineup will be anchored by junior shortstop Ford Proctor and junior catcher Dominic DiCaprio. Proctor is coming off a season in which he led the team with 58 runs scored and was among the team leaders with a .311 batting average and 74 hits. DiCaprio led the team with a .366 batting average and a .438 on-base percentage and was second on the team with 87 hits and 49 runs batted in. According to Graham, Chandler will be the leadoff hitter, but the rest of the lineup will likely be determined based on the opposing pitcher.
Though the Owls lost two of their top pitchers to the MLB draft, Graham said there is reason to be optimistic about this year’s rotation.
“We’ve got several options for the starting pitching,” Graham said. “And the development of the pitching staff to the extent I think it can would make it possible for us to get to [the College World Series].”
Sophomore Matt Canterino will likely slot into the rotation as the number-one option; he led C-USA with 111 strikeouts last year and held opposing hitters to a paltry .194 batting average while being selected to both the C-USA All-Tournament and All-Freshman teams. The Owls will also be adding Salinas back into the rotation after a year in which he struggled with injuries, pitching in just four games. Prior to his injuries, Salinas was a standout for the Owls, recording a 3.39 ERA and being selected to the All-Conference USA Second Team during the 2016 season.
“It feels good to finally be healthy again,” Salinas said. “[It] feels good to be in an opportunity to help this ballclub win a lot of games.”
According to Graham, the rest of the pitching rotation has yet to be set in stone. Graham said sophomore Addison Moss will start in the season-opening series, but other pitchers will be getting significant playing time.
“There are others in the mix,” Graham said. “[Freshman Dane Acker] is a very good pitcher, and [junior Evan Kravetz] has been great this spring; he’s going to have a big role.”
Though the Owls have made 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments, they have not advanced to the College World Series since 2008. Since then, they have made it to the NCAA Super Regionals just twice, with their last appearance coming in 2013. But according to Proctor, the team is looking up this year.
“We have a lot of confidence in our team this year; I just think we have to stay level-headed, through the ups and downs,” Proctor said. “But we’re planning to have a lot more ups than downs.”
Graham adopted a more short-term outlook.
“Every game to me is a treasure [and] a privilege, and so I’m just looking forward to getting started, and keep teaching, and keep grinding away,” Graham said. “Everything with me is about teaching and winning: Winning is the evidence that you’ve taught well.”
The Owls kick off their season this weekend at the University of Central Florida Tournament in Orlando before returning to home Reckling Park next Tuesday, Feb. 20 to take on Texas State University.
Even sophomore pitcher Matt Canterino, who was recently named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ 2018 Preseason All-America Third Team, is not above moving the tarp after a rainy day for practice. In the midst of an interview, Canterino saw his teammates covering the field and immediately ran over to help. Of course, the sophomore ace returned as soon as the job was done to finish his interview.
Last season, Canterino finished 12th in the nation with 10.4 strikeouts every nine innings. He also led Conference USA with the fewest hits allowed per nine innings, 6.28. Canterino did all that while leading the team in innings pitched, but he said he believes he can improve even more.
“[My goal] would be to go deeper into games than I did last year,” he said. “That means I’m keeping my team in a good position to win.”
Rice will rely heavily on its ace this year with an inexperienced pitching staff. Senior pitcher Ricardo Salinas will take the hill as the second weekend starter, but behind him are mostly freshman and sophomores with limited starting pitching experience at the college level. Canterino will likely have to eat innings to keep the bullpen rested heading into the remainder of the weekend. Head coach Wayne Graham believes he is up to the challenge.
“He’s a horse,” Graham said. “He loves to pitch. When I take him out, he never wants to come out.”
Before his breakout freshman season, Canterino was a decorated recruit. He graduated from Carroll High School in Southlake in 2016. While on the baseball team at Southlake, he posted an 8-2 record with 1.37 ERA in 117.2 innings. Along with his athletic achievements at Southlake, Canterino maintained a 103.9 grade point average on a 100-point scale.
He has carried his intellect into college. Canterino is a mechanical engineering major, balancing the challenges of his engineering classes with his heavy baseball requirements. Head Coach Wayne Graham said his intelligence can both help and hurt him.
“He’s infinitely smarter than I am, but not smarter in baseball,” Graham said. “He was a little over prone to analysis at first.”
Canterino became a strikeout machine last season, posting double-digit strikeouts in three consecutive starts. He was the first Rice player to reach that mark since Jeff Niemann in 2003. In the first game of the C-USA tournament against Florida Atlantic University, he posted a career-high 11 strikeouts while leading the team to victory.
The 2018 season will be just Canterino’s second season at Rice. But at the end of next year, he will be eligible to declare for the 2019 MLB draft. Canterino said playing professional baseball would be a dream come true.
“It’s just an incredible opportunity so if that opportunity does present itself in a reasonable manner; you’re definitely going to consider it,” Canterino said.
When asked about any games of particular interest on the schedule, Canterino pointed to the series at Stanford University beginning Feb. 22 as one he is looking forward to. In a game against Stanford last season, Canterino allowed just two hits and one walk while striking out 10 and picking up his first collegiate win.
Canterino will get his first chance to pitch this season this weekend in Orlando, Florida against either Samford University, the University of Central Florida or the University of Virginia. He will be looking to get the Owls’ season off to a successful start.
This past season was one of great heights for junior catcher Dominic DiCaprio. He improved his game in almost every measurable aspect, more than doubling his output in several key statistical categories. His .366 batting average led the team, and he was second in both hits and runs batted in. In the second half of the season, when the team needed him the most as it mounted a season-salvaging comeback to return to the NCAA Tournament, he was at his best, hitting to the tune of a .385 clip over the team’s final 32 games. At the end of the season, he was named a finalist for the 2017 Bobby Bragan Collegiate Slugger Award, honoring the Texas-based Division I baseball player who best exemplifies a blend of academic and on-field performance. Before this season he was named to the Conference USA Preseason All-Second team.
One might think that a list of accomplishments that long would lend itself to some well-earned rest in the offseason. But according to DiCaprio, he is still working to improve facets of his game.
“I’ve been working on hitting for a little more power,” DiCaprio said. “I improved a good amount from freshman year, but I want to take a bigger jump in that category.”
DiCaprio began playing baseball from a young age. Though his family started him on football as well, he found himself behind the plate for the first time when he was just eight years old, and since then he’s never looked back.
“I was the biggest kid on the team when I was eight, so [catcher] is where they put me at, and I just stayed there,” DiCaprio said. “I honestly haven’t played another position since then.”
But it’s not as if he’s being forced to play catcher, either. Last season, he had a .984 fielding percentage and caught 12 runners stealing while starting behind the plate in 58 games. He said he enjoys being such an integral part of the game on the defensive side.
“Growing up, baseball was boring if I played any other position,” DiCaprio said. “[As a catcher] I’m in every play, so I’m always going to get the ball unless they hit it. I’m involved in the action; that’s what I like most about it.”
DiCaprio arrived at Rice in 2015 following a decorated high school career during which he led his team to three district titles and was named to Louisville Slugger’s First Team High School All-America. He said his interest in Rice stemmed from many factors.
“[I decided to come to Rice] because the academics were awesome, and the [baseball] program’s prestige,” DiCaprio said. “I heard about Rice growing up, their Omaha runs and all that, and when I got the offer, it was one of those things you really can’t pass up.”
At Rice, DiCaprio enjoys spending time with his teammates both on and off the field; he said he enjoys both their camaraderie and inclusiveness.
“I love hanging out with our team [and] playing video games: Fortnite is the game right now that we’re all into,” DiCaprio said. “You’ve got a lot of cliques sometimes on teams, but that’s not really the case with our team. Anybody hangs out with anybody, freshmen to seniors.”
This year, those freshmen make up a sizable portion of the team’s roster. According to DiCaprio, they bring a youthful energy to the team.
“[I’m looking forward to] how our team gels,” DiCaprio said. “We have a lot of young guys [this year], and they’re excited to play. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun playing this year.”
Although he’s focused on this year for now, DiCaprio still keeps an eye toward the future.
“Hopefully I have a chance to play professional baseball after this year,” DiCaprio said. “But if not, I really want to work in the sports field...in some capacity. Obviously, I love sports, and so that’s what the Rice degree [allows you to do]. I plan on using that wisely.”