Rice Baseball took a much-needed weekend series against Western Kentucky, staying alive in the race for the Conference USA Tournament.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball wins the series 2-1
Rice baseball dropped the opening game before storming back to take the series thanks to a pair of one-sided affairs that ended in landslide victories on Saturday and Sunday. The pitching was good, the defense was stellar and the bats were explosive.
The series win is the Owls’ first since taking two of three from Marshall in later March. Rice is now 13-30 overall and 6-15 in conference play. Here are a few takeaways from the weekend.
1. Bring out the bats
Rice baseball scored five runs against Southern Miss last weekend across three games. They followed that up with a three-run outing on Friday night. Then the bats woke up. And when they did, they shook Reckling Park for the remainder of the weekend. Rice scored 24 runs over the final 20 innings of the weekend.
While it was the usual suspects who led the charge, Rice got contributions up and down the lineup. That’s what enabled the Owls to cobble together so many crooked numbers. Rather than wait for Austin Bulman, Guy Garibay or Aaron Smigelski to deliver the big hit, the entire lineup contributed in key moments.
Last Time Out: Rice baseball swept by No. 6 Southern Miss on the road
Pierce Gallo went 4-for-5 on Saturday with four RBI while hitting from the sixth spot. Hal Hughes was a perfect 2-for-2 on Sunday, scoring twice and doubling along the way. Catchers Justin Long and Manny Garza each had RBI hits during the weekend. Great players can drive in runs here and there, but it truly takes a village to score like the Owls did this weekend.
2. Sneaky strong starting pitching
Despite not having Cooper Chandler on Friday night, Rice starting pitching produced one of their most competitive weekends of the season. Thomas Burbank had the shortest outing, only going 2.2 innings, but things would only get better from there.
On Saturday, David Shaw through five innings, allowing one earned run on just three hits. It was Alex DeLeon’s turn to dazzle on Sunday, hurling five innings of one-run ball himself. Both of those outings allowed the offense time to work on the Western Kentucky staff with tremendous results.
DeLeon tipped his cap to the herculean defensive efforts of his outfielders behind him like Connor Walsh. “It makes you kind of calm down out there, kinda relax and get back into a groove,” he said.
Few teams are able to turn in three quality starting outings from their weekend rotation on a consistent basis. That said, it’s hard to be upset with what the Rice staff was able to accomplish this weekend.
3. Building momentum?
Head coach Jose Cruz Jr. acknowledge it would take some time to get the program to where he wanted it to be shortly after taking the job last year. The year has been filled with road bumps, but this weekend served as a positive note as the calendar turns to May. It’s too late to rewrite box scores from March and April — that damage has been done — but Rice still controls what happens from this point onward.
The teams that are remembered are the ones that win in May. To regurgitate an age-old sports adage, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Because they were able to take a series this weekend they’ll now have the opportunity to win back-to-back series for the first time this year. That’s how all good runs start, by winning the next game.
“We’re basically going to have to win every series to even have a chance,” Cruz Jr. said, aware of how large the task at hand is for his team. “We’re just going to have to show up and play the best ball we’ve played. Right now we’re trending in that direction.”
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | WKU 5 – Rice 3
Western Kentucky jumped out in front early on Friday night, scoring twice in the second inning off Rice starter Thomas Burbank, who went 2.2 innings before ceding to Brandon Deskins, who escaped a jam and kept WKU off the board for the remainder of his outing.
Rice would tally 11 hits on the afternoon but was unable to turn them into runs until the seventh inning. At that point, Western Kentucky had taken a 4-0 lead and Rice was forced to play catch up. Home runs by Austin Bulman and Manny Garza in the late innings helped narrow the gap, but Rice would fall 5-3.
SATURDAY | Rice 13 – WKU 8
Rice fell behind in the second game of the series, but they wouldn’t spend long trailing. The Owls took the lead with a two-run second inning. Then Rice exploded for 10 runs in the second inning, the most runs Rice has scored in a single inning in conference play since scoring 10 at Charlotte in 2019. Aaron Smigelski and Pierce Gallo each had multiple RBI hits in the frame, putting Rice in front 12-1.
Western Kentucky cobbled together seven additional runs over the course of the next seven innings, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Owls’ sizable early lead. Cristian Cienfuegos would come on to pitch the final two innings to preserve the win.
SUNDAY | Rice 8 – WKU 2
After swapping runs in the first inning, Rice took their first lead of the rubber game on a sacrifice fly from Guy Garibay in the third inning. Garibay would extend the lead himself in his next plate appearance, diving to right field to score one just before Austin Bulman delivered a two-run blast.
Leading 5-2 at that point, the Rice offense struck for three more in the sixth courtesy of doubles from Jack Reidel and Hal Hughes plus a wild pitch. Alex DeLeon was terrific on the mound, holding WKU to two runs in five innings. Matthew Linskey came on to close things out in the eighth, endured a 49-minute lightning delay, then finished out the ninth to lock down the win.
ON DECK | at Charlotte (Fri-Sun)
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