Rice baseball brings renewed vigor and elevated expectations into the 2023 season, the Owls’ second under head coach Jose Cruz Jr.
For a program with the storied history that Rice baseball has, it’s been a tough few years. And while the term “rebuilding” isn’t one the Owls would want to be associated with their brand, that’s essentially what last season was for this program.
New head coach Jose Cruz Jr. brought passion and a modern vantage point on the game of baseball. He reinvigorated the fan base and helped paved the way for a new playing surface at Reckling Park, which remains one of the most beautiful venues in the sport. There was a lot of good that happened during the 2022 season, but the actual results on the diamond were lacking.
“Last year, we didn’t win as many games as we wanted to,” junior outfielder Guy Garibay said. “We’re coming into this year with a bad taste in our mouth and we’re out to win.”
Rice baseball finished 17-39 in Cruz Jr.’s inaugural season at the helm and 9-21 in conference play. Two of their three series wins (over Marshall and over FIU) came on the road. Taking two of three at home against Western Kentucky was their best home series of the season.
Deadset on rising up from that slow start, the Owls embarked on a focused offseason with a clear directive. Rice hired a new pitching coach, Parker Bangs, and spent a significant amount of time and effort with their pitchers in the Pigpen Pitching Lab. They retooled their roster with key transfer additions and several talented incoming freshmen.
“We feel that as a staff we’ve challenged ourselves to be as prepared and as cutting-edge as we can possibly be when it comes to baseball,” Cruz Jr., said. “We’ve created a lot of things and a lot of support for our guys to succeed and we’re looking forward to seeing it happen on the field.”
Rice was picked to finish eighth in the 10-team league by conference head coaches this season. Newcomer Dallas Baptist got four first-place votes. The Owls did not receive any, nor were they honored with any individual players on the preseason all-conference team.
Cruz Jr. was undeterred. “We’re trying to win as many games as possible. We’re coming into every game thinking we’re going to win,” he said. “I don’t think outside of here expectations are very high but we have high expectations for what we can accomplish.”
Beyond general optimism, Cruz Jr. is confident because he’s tuned into the roster and recognizes the journey that his players have been on to get to this point. “Nobody is the same,” he recalled, comparing the growth he’s seen from his players from last year to this year. He was particularly adamant about the pitching progress, singling out guys like Parker Smith on the mound.
The Owls’ season gets underway on Friday, February 17 with the start of a three-game slate against Louisiana. The first pitch of the opener is set for 6:30 p.m.
** Photo: Maria Lysaker **
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