After a rocky start, Rice Baseball was able to salvage one game against Lamar, dropping the series but finishing things on a high note.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball drops series 1-2
It took three tries, but Rice baseball head coach Jose Cruz Jr. earned his first home victory on Sunday afternoon in thrilling come-from-behind fashion thanks to the bat of Austin Bulman. His grand slam salvaged what could have been the Owls’ second consecutive weekend of winless play, averting what Cruz Jr. himself dubbed “disaster” and replacing it with a momentum-building win.
“Our team is starting to build, starting to come together in many ways,” Cruz Jr. said. “We still have a ways to go.”
Fielding will undoubtedly be on the to-do list — Rice committed four errors to Lamar’s two — as will be situational hitting. There was good and bad on the mound and much like the rest of the roster, it has tweaks that need to be made too. But first, here’s are three important takeaways from the weekend.
1. The lineup writes itself
In the lead-up to the regular season, Cruz Jr. said “the lineup writes itself.” Through seven games, that declaration is beginning to bear itself out.
At the plate, the top half of the lineup is more or less set with the return of Connor Walsh on Saturday. Walsh missed the first four games of the season with injuries but came back swinging, going 2-for-4 with a walk in his debut. Behind him, in some order, have been Bulman, Garibay, Aaron Smigelski and Drew Woodcox.
More: Jose Cruz Jr. hopes to bring modern edge to Rice baseball
Defensively, there has been some rotation between some of the infield positions and the designated hitter spot. Outside of the platoon at designated hitter, catcher has featured the most notable split with Justin Long and Manny Garza both fighting for playing time. The lineup isn’t set just yet, but it’s starting to feel pretty close. A few notable lines from the weekend:
- Garibay: 5-for-15, 2 HR, 5 RBI
- Bulman: 5-for-14, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5 RBI
- Smigelski: 5-for-13, 2 2B, 1 HR, 6 RBI
2. Arms you can trust
Navigating the Rice pitching staff has felt like running through a minefield in the early portions of this season. Outings have ranged from abysmal to fantastic, with almost no precursor to warn what might happen next. Starter Cooper Chandler was hit around on Friday night, but rough weather conditions and poor defense behind him did not help. Cruz Jr. said Chandler would “probably end up starting next Friday as well.”
On the positive side, Alex DeLeon was sharp in relief of Chandler going 3.1 innings and allowing just one earned run. Garret Zaskoda worked 2.1 innings on Saturday with three strikeouts and one run allowed. Reed Gallant punched out all three batters he faced in a rare 1-2-3 inning on Saturday. Christian Cienfuegos, Mark Perkins and Brandon Deskins all provided quality outings on Sunday.
Cruz Jr. emphasized the command of his pitchers as one of the most important aspects of their success. “I think our pitching competed pretty good. We’re pounding the zone very well,” he said.
As for the starters, Roel Garcia looked sharper than his previous outing. He was charged with two runs in 4.1 innings. Thomas Burbank had his final line marred by a rough final inning, but more or less kept Rice in the game until things unraveled.
The real problem was the landmines in between. David Shaw, Caleb Matthews and Tom Vincent each allowed multiple runs while recording four outs or less. Many of the players that have struggled are young with more to learn as they progress at the collegiate level. Others aren’t. Regardless, finding the trusted list of who Cruz Jr. can turn to in key moments remains a top priority.
3. Smigeliski shines
It seemed destined to go down as an obscure fact with relatively little importance: the first run of the 2022 Rice Baseball season was scored by true freshman Aaron Smigelski. The newcomer entered as a pinch hitter in a 15-0 ballgame, singled and came around to score.
Cruz Jr. took note of the at bat, praising the newcomers’ approach, and gave him another chance the following day which turned into the same result, a hit. Smigelski entered the starting lineup for the Owls’ midweek game against HBU and has been a fixture in the starting nine from that point onward.
“It doesn’t faze him. The guy is what I call a flat-liner. He goes about his business like it’s just another day,” Cruz Jr. said. “He’s been a boost of energy for us.” Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the Owls’ offensive numbers have been much better with Smigelski in the lineup. That’s not going to be changing anytime soon.
When asked about the offensive production as a whole, Smigelski’s name was the first one Cruz Jr. mentioned. “Smigelski was amazing all weekend,” he said, before continuing on to list Garibay, Bulman and Becker as well.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | Lamar 12 – Rice 6
The series did not get off to an auspicious start for Rice baseball. Lamar loaded the bases with its first three batters of the game and struck with four runners in the first inning against Rice starter Cooper Chandler who labored through three innings of work. Rice would steal back two runs in the bottom of the frame but would leave runners in scoring position in two of the next three innings.
It wasn’t that Rice didn’t get their hits, they just couldn’t deliver once base runners were on. Rice hit .188 with RISP in scoring position and gave up 12 runs on the mound. It’s hard to win games like that.
SATURDAY | Lamar 8 – Rice 6 (11)
Saturday was a much more subdued affair for both sides in the early goings. Roel Garcia worked three scoreless innings for the Owls before leaving the game in the fifth with a 2-1 lead thanks to a home run by Aaron Smigelski. Lamar would tie things up that inning and take a 5-2 lead the following frame.
Both sides were quiet for a while after that before Rice broke through with a pair of clutch two-out, RBI hits in the bottom of the eighth. Smigelski drove in two with a single to left. Woodcox lined a ball into center, giving Rice a 6-5 lead. It wouldn’t last long. Lamar homered in the ninth to tie the score.
From there, the game moved on to extra innings. Lamar broke through with two runs in the 11th. Rice had their chance to equalize, but pinch hitters Benjamin Rosengard and Jack Ben-Shoshan struck out, stranding the tying runs on base.
SUNDAY | Rice 8 – Lamar 6
Thomas Burbank cruised through the first 4.2 innings against Lamar on Sunday before running into a barrage of extra-base hits. After retiring the first two batters he faced in the fifth, he allowed a walk, followed by a double and then two triples, breaking a 1-1 tie and giving Lamar a 5-1 advantage.
Garibay delivered the Owls’ first score on a solo shot in the fourth inning, his second long ball of the weekend. He helped moved the lineup along with a walk in the fifth, helping the home team scratch across their first crooked number of the weekend. Smigelski would be the hero, driving in two on an RBI single to left field to bring Rice back within striking distance, although they still trailed 5-4.
Lamar would tack on another, stacking the deck further against Rice baseball in the late innings. The Owls’ big chance would come in the eighth. With the bases loaded, Bulman took a 2-2 pitch and drove it well past the fence for a grand slam. Matthew Linskey came on for the save to give Rice the win.
ON DECK | Rice baseball vs Baylor (Wed)
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