Rice Baseball was swept for the second-straight weekend, this time falling in three straight games to Louisiana Tech on the road.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball drops series 3-0
The decent down the standings continued this weekend for Rice baseball, who dropped another three-game series in conference play to reach a 3-9 conference record. The Owls have showed flashes, but weren’t able to combine the arms and the bats in the same way they did in a midweek blowout of Houston Baptist.
It was a tough result, with some good and bad mixed in. Here are a few takeaways from the weekend.
1. Counting on Cooper Chandler
Cooper Chandler got off to a rocky start with Rice baseball. He walked away from his first two starts with a 10.80 ERA, failing to get out of the fourth inning. Despite the poor numbers, head coach Jose Cruz Jr. was adamant Chandler was going to the Owls’ Friday night guy. Cruz Jr. said Chandler was “competing well” and “unlucky”, trusting his veteran hurler to stick it out and turn things around.
Half a season later, Chandler has cut his ERA in half, trimming it to 5.36. Perhaps even more impressive, he’s posted a quality start (six innings pitched with three of fewer runs allowed) in three of his last four appearances. The front runner of a team that has been desperately searching for consistency on the mound, Chandler has been a beacon of that in recent weeks.
Last Time Out: Rice baseball pummels HBU in midweek blowout
Since the Lamar game on Feb. 25, Chandler has allowed more than three runs in an outing just once. He’s posted more strikeouts than innings pitched in five of his six starts over that span. He’s been great. And Rice baseball is better for it. Hat tip to coach, he definitely got this one right.
2. Big hits can’t mask lineup struggles
As a team, Rice baseball holds a .254 combined batting average. That’s the 11th best in Conference USA, better than bottom-dwelling FIU by just seven points. The Owls rank in the bottom half of the league in doubles, home runs and RBI. They’re 11th in slugging percentage and ninth in on-base percentage. They’ve consistently drawn walks at a high clip, but the rest of the numbers are sobering.
And that’s why Rice puts up threes and ones in the run column against teams like Louisiana Tech. Rice had at least four hits combined from the top four spots in the order in every game this series. The bottom five hitters never combined for more than four base knocks in a game.
The lineup has skewed top-heavy this season, but it was abundantly clear this weekend when four players — Jack Riedel, Austin Bulman, Aaron Smigelski and Pierce Gallo — accounted for every RBI of the series. That’s not a winning formula and the numbers bear that out.
3. Hanging Tough
Louisiana Tech was one of the tougher opponents on the Rice baseball schedule this season. Being swept by the bulldogs, who are now 9-3 in conference play and 16-4 at home this year with two midweek wins over a ranked LSU squad, wasn’t a shocking development. From what we’ve seen on the field from both teams so far, Louisiana Tech is the better baseball team right now. But for most of the weekend, the gap didn’t see as big as it might have on paper.
The Owls’ largest deficit on the weekend came in a 9-3 lost on Saturday which was a 5-3 game after six innings. Two of the final four runs were unearned. Rice dropped the other two games by two runs apiece, maintaining close contests thanks to three strong outings by their starters — possibly the first time they’ve gotten such a performance in unison in conference play this season.
Being swept isn’t fun, but being thumped is worse. Rice baseball wasn’t thumped this weekend. Now it’s time to get the arms and the bats working together.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | LA Tech 5 – Rice 3
A first-inning home run put Rice in a 3-0 hole early, setting the stage for what became a pitcher’s duel between the Owls’ Cooper Chandler and Louisiana Tech’s Cade Gibson, who would leave the game after six holding to that very same 3-0 advantage. That’s when Rice responded with a three-spot in the seventh inning sparked by a two-run home run from Jack Riedel and followed by a RBI double from Aaron Smigelski.
The deadlock would last for one more inning before Louisiana Tech used another long ball, this one a two-run variety, to put themselves ahead for good. Rice was shut out in the ninth, falling 5-3 in the opening game.
SATURDAY | LA Tech 9 – Rice 3
Rice baseball got on the board first in the middle game with another home run from Riedel. Austin Bulman tacked on another run via a double to give Rice a 3-0 edge in the fifth, but that’s where the Rice pitching staff would show its first true signs of weakness on the weekend.
Garrett Zaskoda entered in relief of Alex DeLeon and surrendered three earned runs in two-thirds of an inning, allowing three of the five batters he faced to get hits. The 3-0 lead became a 4-3 deficit, which would lengthen for the remainder of the game, with Louisiana Tech scoring at least one run in each subsequent frame, winning 9-3.
SUNDAY | LA Tech 3 – Rice 1
Sunday’s are typically high-scoring affairs exhibiting strained bullpens and plenty of pent-up energy. That wasn’t the case at all in this series finale, which featured four total runs, scored in three innings, leaving plenty of white noise in between. Louisiana Tech scored three of Rice starter Thomas Burbank who matched a career-high five innings, set earlier in the week against Houston Baptist.
Unused up to that point, closer Matthew Linskey was handed the ball for the final three innings, tossing a career-high eight strikeouts in another dominant performance. Unfortunately for the Owls, it would be too little, too late.
Rice would manage just one run on the day, scored on an RBI ground out from Pierce Gallo in the ninth inning. That left the tying run at the plate with just one out, but strikeouts from Smigeliski and Nathan Becker quelled any hopes of a comeback and finalized the series sweep.
ON DECK | Rice baseball at Sam Houston (Tues), vs UTSA (Fri-Sun)
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