Rice baseball bounced back from an opening loss, taking two of three games against crosstown Houston Baptist to open their 2021 campaign.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice wins series 2-1
1. COVID-19 and Winter Storm Uri throw Owls a curve
Roel Garcia was meant to be the Opening Day starter for Rice baseball. Of course, that was when Opening Day was meant to happen on Friday night against Little Rock. Then Winter Storm Uri brought the city of Houston to a standstill and directly impacted who Rice has available to work with this week, including Garcia who was bumped from Friday to Sunday to ensure he had adequate time to ramp up.
Gacia wasn’t the only Owl displaced from the presumed normal roster. Freshman outfielder Guy Garibay was unavailable for the weekend because of COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing. There’s optimism he’ll be able to make his debut next weekend against Louisiana.
Head coach Matt Bragga was emphatic that the missing pieces weren’t an excuse for the Owls’ sluggish opener. Nevertheless, the carousel of available players — and the first cancelation of the season (the midweek game against Lamar has been shelved by the Cardinals) — served as yet another reminder that the 2021 season will still be bumpy, storm or not.
2. New catcher(s) in town
Catcher Justin Collins was among the Owls who did not play this weekend. His status was uncertain the last time this spring, but Bragga confirmed that he did not expect Collins to return. It looks like incoming transfer Will Karp, who hasn’t played the position much at all since high school, will assume the bulk of the responsibilities behind the plate.
Viewed as a do-it-all infielder when he was recruited, Karp has transitioned from that side of the diamond to behind the plate quite well. He flashed a good arm, caught a few would-be-base stealers and held his own behind the dish.
He was also productive with his bat. Karp, third baseman Braden Comeaux and outfielder Justin Dunlap were the only Owls with hits in all three games.
Freshman Justin Long got a chance behind the dish on Monday. We’ll probably see both guys over the next few weeks. Rice will have a few weeks to establish a new plan at the position before conference play arrives.
3. The bullpen is better and has the potential to be really good
Brandon Deskins hadn’t thrown in more than a week when he was asked to pitch Rice out of a jam on Saturday afternoon. He did give up a hard-hit RBI ball, with the runs charged to Alex DeLeon ahead of him, but settled in quickly. Deskins threw 3.2 innings, allowed three hits and struck out four.
Garrett Zaskoda, who received a look as a possible midweek starting option, was sharp in his relief appearance on Sunday, allowing one run on two hits in four innings. Reed Gallant kept the ball rolling on Monday with five shutout innings, allowing no hits along the way.
Three of the five relievers Rice baseball deployed in the series were superb (Deskins, Zaskoda, Gallant). Only DeLeon allowed multiple runs. At the very least, more good outings than bad is a step in the right direction for the Rice bullpen which still has plenty of talented young arms like Dillon Janac and Matthew Linskey waiting in the wings.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
SATURDAY | HBU 8 – Rice 7 (10 Inn)
You couldn’t have drawn up a much better start for Rice. The first four Owls that stepped to the plate delivered with hits. Then the opening stanza was capped off with a three-run bomb from Austin Bulman. From that point onward, though, the offense was almost silent. “They shut us down for the next nine innings, honestly,” Bragga said with a grimace.
Starter Mitchell Holcomb allowed three runs in 5.1 innings, but things soured when Alex DeLeon allowed four runs without recording an out, allowing Houston Baptist to take a 7-4 lead.
Rice added two unearned runs in the sixth, but trailed Houston Baptist 7-8 entering the ninth. The Owls manufactured one more run to force extras but fell in the 10th with the would-be game-winning run at the plate.
SUNDAY | Rice 9 – HBU 3
The pitching was much better for Rice in the second game of the series. The two-man combination of Blake Brogdon and Zaskoda allowed three runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking three. Zaskoda earned his first career win in the result, supported by a thunderous late-game burst by the Rice bats.
After swapping runs in the middle frames, Rice hung a five-spot in the eighth inning. That crooked number effectively put the game out of reach. Hal Hughes and Karp had RBIs in the inning, but it was a bases-clearing RBI triple by reliable third baseman Comeaux that proved to be the insurmountable crescendo.
MONDAY | Rice 1 – HBU 0
The getaway game is typically slanted toward the offenses, but that wasn’t the case this time around. Garcia, bumped from the opener to the series finale, was sharp in his return to the mound, throwing four scoreless innings for the Owls.
Bragga said Garcia’s velocity isn’t quite back at 100 percent. Even so, he still managed to work through HBU’s lineup with relative ease. Gallant took over and blanked the Huskies for the next five frames, earning the win in his first-ever collegiate outing.
With the bases loaded in the ninth inning, incoming transfer Connor Walsh found the barrel and delivered his first base hit as a Rice Owl. The ball scorched down the alley in right center field, driving in a runner from third, giving Rice the game and series win.