Rice Baseball worked through some early season growing pains against Louisiana, salvaging the Sunday finale and learning a lot along the way.
THREE FOR THE ROAD | Rice baseball loses the series 2-1
Rice baseball came tantalizingly close to a win on Opening Day, but couldn’t hold on late against Louisiana, who pushed their winning streak over Rice to 11 games with a second win on Saturday. The Owls finally got their footing on Sunday, rallying from a 5-0 deficit to take the finale and build some momentum as they head into their first midweek contest against Sam Houston. Here are a few takeaways from the weekend.
1. The new kids are alright
Improving the roster was one of the top priorities for head coach Jose Cruz Jr. this offseason and there was plenty of anticipation when those fresh faces finally got the chance to step onto the diamond this weekend. It didn’t take long for several of them to impress in their early action.
On opening night, three hitters made their Rice debut (Max Johnson, Drew Holderbach and Ben Royo) and all three contributed to the go-ahead two-run rally in the sixth. Holderbach singled. Royo drove in a run on a sacrifice fly and Johnson walked, loading the bases for the go-ahead walk a batter later.
Immediately afterward, newcomer Krisha Raj struck out the side in the top of the seventh, his Rice debut. Raj wasn’t perfect — he surrendered the go-ahead run in the next inning — but the collection of newcomers, on the whole, was positive.
On Saturday Freshman catcher Paul Smith walked four times and collected his first collegiate RBI on Saturday. Then Holderbach found his groove on Sunday, mashing a go-ahead home run, the Owls’ first longball of the season.
IT'S GONE!! First homer of the year!! pic.twitter.com/y7If8kr062
— Rice Baseball (@RiceBaseball) February 19, 2023
2. Clutch hitting remains key
Without disclosing which games were which, here are the Owls’ outputs with runners in scoring position in each of the three games this weekend: 5-for-12 (.417), 1-for-7 (.143), 0-for-10 (.000). Guess which game the Owls won?
One stat does not a game make, but the Owls’ lack of timely hitting in the first two contests (.000 on Friday and .143 on Saturday) made it hard to win, even with their solid pitching performance on opening day and a combined 17 walks issued to them in those first two contests. There were a lot of base runners, but not nearly enough runs.
“I’m happy for them because now it’s like a relief for the guys to be able to break through with bases loaded and guys on base,” head coach Jose Cruz Jr. said. “Hopefully moving forward they know they can do it and we get more of it.”
Getting 12 runs a game is a luxury few teams have. Expecting that on a daily basis would be pushing it, but getting past the four-run mark is going to have to be something Rice finds a way to do consistently if they’re going to find ways to win more than once on any given weekend.
3. Pitching depth goes under the microscope again
It was a mixed bag on the mound for Rice baseball this weekend. The first tip of the cap goes to Parker Smith for a quality start on Friday night, far surpassing the underwhelming performances from the starters on Saturday and Sunday. Cruz Jr will likely give both guys another shot or two on the weekend before making changes, but it’s safe to say neither Justin Long nor JD McCracken was thrilled with their less-than-two-inning outings.
As for the relief corps, Matthew Linskey remains the gold standard, but Rice got strong showings from Garrett Zaskoda, Blake Brogdon and a few others. Freshman Ryland Urbanczyk had an encouraging debut as did Texas Tech transfer Tyler Hamilton.
The bullpen might have actually been more effective than a cursory look might convey. On Saturday and Sunday combined, Rice relievers were charged with nine runs in 15 innings, an ERA of 5.40. That’s quite the contrast from the starters on those days who gave up 10 runs in 3.0 innings, an ERA of 30.00.
While 5.40 from the pen might not quite be good enough, it’s certainly good enough to keep you in most games, provide your starter went a reasonable distance and pitched well enough. Nevertheless, there’s a lot more work that’s needed to be done here before Rice feels confident in who they’re going to deploy in those key situations.
THE PLAY BY PLAY
FRIDAY | Louisiana 5 – Rice 4
With two outs in the bottom of the first, Guy Garibay reached base and Manny Gazra doubled him home. That proved to be one of only a handful of key two-out hits on the night for the Owls, who got on base plenty but watched the big hit evade their grasp.
Louisiana would break through with a three-spot against Rice starter Parker smith in the third, who delivered a quality start with that lone hiccup interspersed. A two-run homerun off reliever Krishna Raj was the only other blemish against the Owls’ pitching staff, but the lack of clutch hitting allowed that to be enough. Rice walked eight times but stranded 11 in a close Friday night loss.
SATURDAY | Louisiana 11 – Rice 2
Converted catcher Justin Long drew the Saturday start for Rice baseball and things did not go well in his her outing on the other side of the battery. Long was tattooed for six runs (five earned) in 1.2 innings pitched, walking two, hitting two and allowing three hits. Louisiana would nickel and dime the relief corps for five more runs over the next 7.1 innings, but the initial onslaught proved to be too much.
Rice was held to nine hits and two runs with Jack Riedel and designated hitter Paul Smith earning the lone RBIs for the home team. Again, Rice had base runners, walking nine times. The Owls just could not drive them in going 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 4-for-20 with runners on at all.
SUNDAY | Rice 12 – Louisiana 8
For the second straight day, Rice baseball was making a pitching change before the sixth out was recorded. Tennessee transfer JD McCracken was roughed up with a five-spot in the second inning, giving way to Garrett Zaskoda. He was able to stabilize things, and with a little run support, enabled the home team to creep back into the game.
Zaskoda handed the baton to Matthew Linskey, who was nothing short of phenomenal, striking out eight in 2.2 innings. Then, with the game tied, Drew Holderbach blasted the go-ahead home run in the fifth. Louisiana would draw the score level again before Rice put a four-spot up in the eighth inning, connecting on multiple hits with runners in scoring position, setting the stage for Blake Brogdon to close out the game on the mound in the ninth.
ON DECK | vs Sam Houston (Wed), at Stanford (Fri-Sun)
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