Rice Baseball pushed UAB to the brink in a decisive rubber match but missed the chance of their first series win by the slimmest of margins.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball drops series 2-1
If two blowout victories in midweek games wasn’t a clear enough indication, a hard-fought opening weekend to conference play served as further proof this Rice baseball squad has turned the corner. Who knows what was said following a 10-1 Friday night shellacking at the hands of Texas Tech, but ever since, this has been a different ball club.
Last Time Out: Rice baseball blasts SFA and Sam Houston in midweek wins
Rice baseball won their first Friday night contest of the season and leaves the weekend feeling like they ought to have won the series. That’s tremendous progress for a team that was struggling to win singular games of any sort a few weeks ago.
“There’s something here,” Rice baseball head coach Jose Cruz Jr. said after the series. “We’re working it.”
Texas A&M comes to town on Tuesday after taking a weekend series from a ranked LSU squad, promising to challenge the Owls even further. But before we turn the page, a few takeaways from the weekend.
1. The bats are back in town
Following last a sweep at the hands of Texas Tech, Rice baseball was averaging 3.5 runs per game. There had really only been three solid performances at the plate through 18 games — An eight-run Sunday against Lamar, a seven-run midweek outing against Houston and nine runs in the series finale against Harvard. Every other outing was unremarkable, at best.
When things clicked, the Owls’ offense exploded. Beginning with a 19-run outburst against SFA on Tuesday, Rice would score 13 against Sam Houston on Wednesday and tallies of eight, six and eight runs against UAB. Rice baseball averaged a whopping 10.8 runs per game in those five contests.
This is lightyears ahead of anything the Owls have put forth at the plate so far this season and it’s risen from a collective step-change across the breadth of the lineup. If Rice can hit like this, they’re going to continue winning games.
2. Secret weapon Matthew Linskey
Perhaps no player on the entire Rice baseball roster has elevated their game to the same degree as closer Matthew Linskey. The sophomore hurler appeared in 10 contests last season and finished with a 7.15 ERA. He had 12 strikeouts and 14 walks in 11.1 innings. He had some good outings, but he wasn’t anywhere near the shut-down pitcher he’s become this season.
“I think he understands his body,” Cruz Jr. said. “There’s been a few adjustments made on his mechanics and he’s really become a force for us, which is great for us.”
So far in 2022, Linskey has already worked a stretch in which he retired 14 out of 16 batters with strikeouts. Entering the season, he had never retired the side with three-straight K’s in his career. He’s done that twice already this season and accrued three strikeouts in exactly 1.0 inning of work on four separate occasions.
3. Playing better baseball
It hasn’t always been a masterclass in how baseball should be played, but the simple face of the matter is this: Rice baseball has won three of five — and they nearly walked it off on Sunday — after sputtering to a 5-13 start to the regular season. And beyond the final box scores, the Owls simply looked like a different team this week.
Cruz Jr admitted dropping the series was disappointing, but he seemed cognizant of the overarching growth saying that he thinks the Owls are finally “finding their groove when it comes to the lineup, the roles and rhythm. Which is great.”
There’s more to work on. The Rice pitching staff looked vulnerable on too many occasions this weekend, giving up 17 hits in the Sunday finale. Even though they won it, the Rice defense still compiled another five-error game, their third of the season. Those need to be cleaned up, but the Owls have something solid to build on.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | Rice 8 – UAB 7
There was nothing conventional about the opening game of the series which started as a pitcher’s duel and ended as a slugfest. Cooper Chandler put up zeroes on the mound for the Owls through six innings, collecting seven strikeouts in what was undoubtedly his best outing in a Rice baseball uniform.
Rice took the lead early via three home runs, one from Austin Bulman and two from Aaron Smigelski. Up 4-0, Rice surrendered six runs to the Blazers in the top of the sixth before punching back with four runs of their own in the bottom of the frame.
With Rice leading 8-7, closer Matthew Linskey would enter with one out in the top of the eighth and work a five-out save to notch the Owls’ first Friday night win of the season.
SATURDAY | UAB 10 – Rice 6
There were moments when it felt like Saturday’s game would be a mere reprisal of the Friday night affair. UAB put up the first crooked number of the day in the third inning, scoring three to break a scoreless start by both sides. Rice took the lead with a four-run fourth, riding a series of RBI singles and one sac fly to pull ahead.
Unlike Friday, though, Rice didn’t have enough in the tank on the mound or the plate to hold that advantage. UAB ripped the lead right back in the fifth and extended their advantage to 10-6 in the eighth, roughing up Brandon Deskins and Reed Gallant in the process. UAB would hold on to win by that score
SUNDAY | UAB 9 – Rice 8
The theme of unraveling pitching staffs and crooked numbers continued into the rubber game of the series. Both teams swapped single runs in the first inning. UAB would take a brief 2-1 lead heading into the fifth before expanding that edge to 6-1 as they drove Rice starter Parker Smith from the ballgame.
Down, but not defeated, Rice answered with a four-spot in the seventh inning, aided by the fourth home run from Smigelski on the weekend. The two sides would trade runs in the next two innings and UAB’s skipper would get tossed. It would finally come down to a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the bottom of the ninth. Rice needed three runs to win or two to tie. They got one, falling 9-8.
ON DECK | Rice baseball vs Texas A&M (Tues), at Marshall (Fri-Sun)
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