Rice Baseball took their first weekend series of the season, winning the opening two games against Marshall on the Owls’ first C-USA road trip.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball wins series 2-1
A one-run defeat on Sunday must not be allowed to sully what was an impactful first Conference USA series win for Rice baseball head coach Jose Cruz Jr. and his team. The Owls held nothing back, pressing every button they could to ensure they didn’t fly back to Texas defeated.
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The pair of wins gives Rice five victories in their last nine games. As modest as that may seem, playing .500 baseball following a 2-9 start represents a significant step-change in the trajectory of this program. But first, a few takeaways from the weekend.
1. Finding the few
As Cruz Jr. mentioned earlier this week, finding a core group of pitchers he could trust in key situations was one of the Owls’ most pressing priorities. The picture might not be crystal clear right now, but things look much better after this weekend than they have at any other point this year.
On Friday, Rice was able to use one reliever (David Shaw) in between a quality outing from starter Cooper Chandler and a shutdown performance from closer Matthew Linskey. Getting one inning from Parker Smith on Saturday wasn’t the plan, but nice relief outings from Roel Garcia, Tom Vincent and Garrett Zaskoda turned things around for the Owls before the day was through.
Vincent and Shaw reprised their performances was good Sunday appearances as well. At a minimum, it appears Chandler, Smith, and Garcia are reliable starting options, with DeLeon quality depth and a viable Sunday guy. Shaw, Vincent, Zaskoda and Linskey have also done enough to be trusted. Rice will still need a few more guys to enter that important circle of trust, but the foundation has clearly been laid.
2. Sharing the success at the plate
Early on in the season, the vast majority of the offensive production seemed to be coming from the contingent in the middle of the order. That group was typically comprised of Guy Garibay, Austin Bulman and Aaron Smigelski. That core has grown to include the red-hot Nathan Becker in recent weeks, but it’s been the productivity from top to bottom of the lineup that has been the most encouraging.
Piere Gallo, who has hit in the bottom third of the lineup for most of the season, is fourth on the team with 15 RBI. He has 11 RBI in his last eight games. And he’d have more if he hit even a few spots higher. Johnny Hoyle had big hits this weekend. So did Connor Walsh. It’s starting to feel like someone new is contributing every other night and the offensive production is reflecting that.
3. Weekend win
For the first time this season, Rice baseball has won a weekend series. The ascent has been slow. Things started out rocky. But Rice does appear to be rounding into form at the right time. Errors are down (just four total on the weekend). Runs are trending up (Rice outscored Marshall 17 – 12) and the pitching is becoming more well-rounded and reliable. Opponents are putting up fewer crooked numbers.
Part of that is the break from playing teams like Texas and Texas Tech in three-game series. That certainly plays a factor. But just watching the team that took the field this weekend makes it abundantly clear that something has changed, they’ve grown. They’re gotten better. And that makes what comes next all the more intriguing.
Cruz Jr. was intent not to “promise the moon” upon his arrival. A few good weekends of baseball should be cause for anyone to offer major course corrections when it comes to those expectations. But it’s clear that should Rice string a few more positive weekends together, they’ll officially be a competitive team that has the ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone in their conference.
If the Owls can do that, they’ll have done more than enough to earn a passing grade for Cruz Jr,’s first campaign. From there, the limits aren’t predetermined. This team still has the potential to be as good as it believes it can be.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | Rice 7 – Marshall 2
Pierce Gallo put Rice baseball out in front in the top of the second inning with a solo shot down the right field line. Austin Bulman followed in the third with a home run of his own with the Owls tacking on one more to take a 3-0 lead. Marshall would tally two runs on solo shots of their own in the bottom of the third, but that would be all they were able to do against Rice pitching that afternoon.
Rice starter Cooper Chandler breezed through six innings, allowing just those two earned runs on four hits with seven strikeouts. He gave way to David Shaw and eventually Matthew Linskey who stifled the Marshall bats while the Rice offense tacked on additional insurance runs in the fifth, seventh and ninth, winning by the final score of 7-2.
SATURDAY | Rice 6 – Marshall 5
Things started out poorly for Rice baseball in the middle game of the series. The Owls committed two errors in the first inning and fell behind 4-1. Starter Parker Smith would last just one inning as the Owls’ were hurled into comeback mode. Marshall added another run in the second, stretching their lead to 5-1 before Rice would mount a counteroffensive.
The Owls sent six men to the plate in the fourth inning, scoring three times, the final two runs coming from an RBI double from Austin Bulman. That put Rice back within reach, trailing 5-4. Roel Garcia delivered a masterful three scoreless innings out of the bullpen, keeping things tight before Guy Garibay and Nathan Becker could tack on RBIs in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively to give Rice a 6-5 win.
SUNDAY | Marshall 5 – Rice 4
Marshall scored first for the first time in the weekend, jumping out in front of Rice 3-0 as Alex DeLeon battled through 4.1 contested innings. He would leave after 4.1 innings, charged with four runs, the same total as the Owls’ hard scored in his defense. Rice scored all of their runs in the fourth and fifth innings, leveling the game at 4-4 before both teams went quiet for several at bats.
It was Marshall that broke the quiet, delivering an RBI double against Thomas Burbank in the eighth to steal the game and avert the series sweep.