In a battle of Owls, Rice Baseball was swept at home by Florida Atlantic over the weekend, outscored by their visitors 24-10 in the three-game series.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball drops series 3-0
A hot start early on in conference play has seemingly cooled off for Rice baseball, who dropped their fifth consecutive contest on Sunday as a three-game series against FAU resulted in a sweep. Going winless at your own ballpark is never fun, and Rice will have plenty to work on as they prepare for a tough road trip to Ruston, LA next weekend. But first, a few takeaways from the weekend.
1. Scoring output stumbles
The Rice bats haven’t been the problem in recent weeks. Even when they weren’t exploding for double-digit outputs, they still seemed to consistently reach six or seven runs, giving their pitching staff support and giving the team a chance in almost every game. Against FAU, Rice scored just 10 runs in three games.
FAU is in the bottom third of the conference in team ERA, and although they’ve pitched fairly well of late, this probably wasn’t the most dominant set of hurlers Rice baseball will see this season. They managed to do a number against the Owls.
Perhaps this was just an off weekend, but it was telling that Rice baseball head coach Cruz Jr. opted to empty the benches on Sunday and put Jack Ben-Shoshan and Cullen Hannigan in the starting lineup for the first time in a long while.
He tried to shake things up and provide this lineup a spark. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. As the pitching staff struggles. the bats will continue to be relied upon to win Rice games. When they’re quiet, it’s going to make for long days at the ballpark.
2. Defense is picking up
It wasn’t that long ago where it seemed like Rice was due a three-error or four-error game every weekend. Keeping track of the baseball wasn’t something this team did well, that is, until the switch was flipped in late March and they became a stronger fielding team.
Jack Riedel showing off the arm 💪 pic.twitter.com/lFKmLX803l
— Rice Baseball (@RiceBaseball) April 2, 2022
“I think our infield is starting to look really good defensively,” Cruz Jr. said, making note of the return of Hal Hughes to the lineup. Hughes made his season debut on Tuesday against Texas A&M Corpus Christi after missing the first half of the season with an injury.
Rice committed just two errors on the weekend, and although there were a few bad hops that some of the Owls’ defenders would have preferred to make, the focus is definitely better. That’s a plus, and a much-needed sign of growth for the program as a whole.
3. Pitching staff in progress
Had anyone offered Cruz Jr. a pair of two-pitcher games to open this weekend series he would have taken it in a heartbeat, especially against one of the best hitting teams in the conference. FAU leads Conference USA in hits, and although they picked up several against Rice, the Owls top end of the staff was competitive enough to be trusted with deep outings, even in the bullpen.
Weeks ago Cruz Jr. talked about finding a reliable corps to throw in the most high-leverage of situations. Even though the Rice bullpen gave up runs this weekend, it seemed evident some combination of Garret Zaskoda, Roel Garcia, Dalton Wood, David Shaw, Tom Vincent and Christian Cienfuegos are going to the first guys to get the call just about every weekend from here on out.
The shortlist has been built. What remains to be seen is which pitchers can make the adjustments and start to limit the damage against some of the deeper lineups in Conference USA. Matthew Linskey has been darn near perfect, but he can’ throw every day, not if he wants to maintain that level of effectiveness. No, it’s going to take another step up by a few more guys. Now it appears the staff knows who they’re looking for.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | FAU 9 – Rice 4
The series started out on a rocky note for Rice baseball starter Cooper Chandler who gave up four runs in the first two innings including a few very hard-hit balls. To his credit, he dug in and fought his way to the sixth inning. Cruz Jr. noticed his grit, saying Chandler “pitched really good”, casting his major complaints upon the Rice offense, which did little to support their Friday night guy.
Rice scored once in the first inning on a groundout. Guy Garibay pulled Rice within one run on a two-run blast in the fifth inning that made the score 4-3 in favor of FAU. The visitors tacked on five more runs after that, nickling-and-diming Chandler and Zaskoda as the Rice bats watched on, resulting in a 9-4 win for FAU.
SATURDAY | FAU 6 – Ricc 5
Filling for Parker Smith who left his start last weekend early, Alex DeLeon delivered a gritty four-run, five-inning effort in Game 2 with two of those runs unearned. Behind 3-0 in the fourth, Rice slugger Austin Bulman delivered an equalizing three-run shot down the left field line to breathe new life into the Rice dugout.
Both teams traded runs in the fifth inning to set the score at 4-4. Again in the sixth, single tallies from each side made it 5-5. FAU would take the lead for good in the eighth with a leadoff home run against Roel Garia following which Rice would send the minimum to the plate in the final two half innings.
SUNDAY | FAU 7 – Rice 1
Things were shaping up to be a close game on getaway day, until they weren’t. Rice took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI double by Austin Bulman. FAU tied the game in the third, then jumped in front in the fourth. Trailing 3-1, the game still felt in reach until FAU delivered the gut-punch 4-run finisher in the sixth inning.
Rice reliever David Shaw left with two runners on and one out, setting the table for Tom Vincent, who struggled to get out of the frame. He gave up three hits and allowed a run to score on a hit by pitch as Rice fell behind 7-1. They would not recover, tallying just four hits in the series finale.