Rice reliever Matt Ditman serves notice he belongs

Rice's Matt Ditman delivers against Texas Tech at Minute Maid Park in Houston on  March 2. Texas Tech, won 2-1. (Rice University photo)

Complaining about dorm food is a staple of college life, but it has added meaning for players on the Rice’s baseball team.

“Every so often we’ll have a guy who lives on campus come in and he’ll be badmouthing the food that day,” redshirt junior pitcher Matt Ditman said. “I’ll lay into him, ‘Hey Mark Ditman is in charge of that food so you better like every bit of it.’”

Matt Ditman is a top relief pitcher at Rice. His father, Mark, is the school’s associate vice president in charge of housing and dining.

Matt didn’t try to hide the connection when he first got to Rice, but he also didn’t want people to think he made the team or was admitted to school because his dad was in a leadership position.

“First I wanted to play, and once I played, I wanted to play well to prove that I belonged there just as much as anybody else,” Ditman said.

That happened more quickly than almost anyone expected. Ditman was a bullpen catcher who didn’t play his first year and saw little opportunity for playing time at that position in the future. So he gradually transitioned to pitching, which he’d only done a little bit as a high school senior. Thinking like a catcher helped him with the position change.

Matt Ditman celebrates a save. (Rice University photos)
Matt Ditman celebrates a save. (Rice University photos)

“I really like to think about how to do pitch sequencing and how to get different hitters out and how to attack them,” Ditman said. “The toughest thing for me was learning how to become a pitcher. In high school you can get away with just throwing it as hard as you can but that really doesn’t work in college. It’s really more about location and how to command your pitches and throw off-speed pitches well and for strikes.”

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander threw 18 innings as a redshirt freshman before a breakout sophomore campaign in which he shared the team lead with 26 appearances and finished among the Conference USA leaders in saves (9), ERA (1.83), opponents’ batting average (.198) and WHIP (0.90) while averaging 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

Through March 24 this season, he was 2-1 with 4 saves with a 2.05 ERA in 13 appearances.

Ditman found that he had the right mentality to be a closer – he enjoys pressure situations and sees them as a privilege. His success last season led him to be drafted in the 15th round by the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Once it happened I was like ‘Wow, even three years ago I was a bullpen catcher and had no hope of seeing the field. Now I’m closing out games in (the NCAA Tournament).’ It’s crazy to me. Part of it was even when I was bullpen catching, I never fully accepted that I wasn’t going to play. I told myself I needed to find a way to get in there and find a way to get onto the field when it mattered.”

Ditman grew up in Houston idolizing Rice baseball players, and he still has a hard time believing that he’s now one of them.

“It sounds cliché to say but it really is just a dream come true,” Ditman said.

But there’s one thing that could make it even better. The teams Ditman watched made it to the College World Series seven times between 1997­-2008. Ditman now hopes to help lead the Owls back to Omaha after a six-year absence. Rice, ranked No. 14 in the March 23 Baseball America poll, entered March in the top 16 in all five major polls.

“The team we have this year — I know everyone says it — but this feels like a team that really has what it takes to make that run,” Ditman said.

Whatever happens this season, some administrators at Rice will be more invested than usual.

“It’s something I’ve embraced,” Ditman said. “My dad’s co-workers have rallied behind me and come to my games. It’s cool to have my family and the Rice environment intertwined.”

Harold Gutmann

Harold Gutmann is a freelance writer based in Mountain View, Calif.