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Baseball regroups ahead of Cruz’s second season

Zeisha Bennett / Thresher

By Ben Baker-Katz     2/15/23 12:10am

When Rice baseball named Jose Cruz Jr. as their new head coach in June of 2021 — on the heels of the program’s first four consecutive losing seasons since the 1980s — the decision was lauded as a step in the right direction. The 2022 season, Cruz’s first at the helm, was anything but, with the Owls’ posting a 17-39 record and failing to appear in the Conference USA tournament for a third consecutive year. 

According to Cruz, 2022 was first and foremost a learning experience.

“[Last year] was revealing,” Cruz said. “The competitiveness of it was not what I was expecting. I don’t know if they lost too many games [in previous years], but the idea of beating everybody or anybody was definitely not what it should have been.”

Prior to last season, Cruz recognized that the biggest obstacle the Owls faced was going to be their pitching, and he was right. In 2022, the Owl’s pitching staff posted a 6.04 ERA, good for No. 180 in the county.

“When I got here, [I thought] the first thing we have to be really good at was pitching,” Cruz said. “We have to be really good at pitching and really good at defense, and the hitting was gonna catch up … Last year it wasn’t. We weren’t all on the same page.”

To address the Owls’ pitching woes, and to prevent a repeat of the 2022 pitching performance he described as “terrible,” Cruz said that he went looking for a pitching coach with whom he sees eye-to-eye. Enter Parker Bangs, who spent the last four years as the pitching coach at Davidson University.

“I needed someone that … shared the same philosophy of pitching and attacking hitters that I do. And Parker did,” Cruz said. 

According to Cruz, the addition of Bangs and better communication among the coaching staff has been beneficial to the entire program.

“I’ve tried to create a round table for the coaching staff, to open dialogue [between the coaches],” Cruz said. “We flow a lot better, right now, than we did a year ago … I feel like we’ve got everything a little bit more under control.”

On the mound, the Owls will bring back two of their top performing pitchers: sophomore Parker Smith, who had started 10 games last season, and junior Matthew Linskey, whose 14-straight shoutout appearances to open the year made him a go-to option out of the bullpen. The pitching rotation was bolstered over the offseason by the addition of sophomore JD McCracken, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, and graduate student Krishna Raj, who played his undergraduate ball at Tulane University and Charleston Southern University. According to Smith, Bangs has taken a new approach to coaching that resonates well with his players.

“Last year was loosely structured in regards to the pitching side,” Smith said. “There was almost too much of a focus on the analytical aspect of managing a staff, [and] that didn’t transfer to the games. This year, we, as a pitching staff, are very structured. Expectations are laid out and we are expected to meet them.”

Cruz said he anticipates this year’s team will move away from placing pitchers in the traditional roles of starter and reliever, instead opting to categorize them as either “long” or “short” inning pitchers. 

“The long guy will start, and then the short guys will plug in where we need to put a fire out, and then bring in another long guy,” Cruz said. “We’re fortunate to have a handful of long guys. We didn’t have that last year.”

The Owls also return a core group of offensive starters from last year, including junior outfielder Guy Garibay, who has been a fixture in the middle of Rice’s lineup for the past two years, junior infielder/outfielder Connor Walsh and sophomore catcher Manny Garza. Garza took over the catching duties in the middle of his freshman season and never looked back, ending the 2022 season with a team-high 0.385 batting average. The team also received some outside help in the form of sophomore infielder Max Johnson, a transfer from Indiana University, who Cruz said is likely to play a key role this year.

According to Garibay, the addition of on-field talent and new coaching has put the Owls in a position to be successful. 

“There’s a lot of talent that has come into the program, as well as good coaches to help with player development,” Garibay said. “We have the talent all around to have a successful season, we just have to show up and perform day by day.”

The Owls will be tested early and often this year, facing four top-25 teams in the season’s first three weeks: No. 3 Stanford University, No. 5 Texas A&M University, No. 15 Texas Christian University and No. 24. Texas Tech University. According to Cruz, those early matchups will be telling about the team’s attitude for the rest of the season.

“It’s exciting that we get to play so many highly ranked teams early on,” Cruz said. “We just need to keep that belief, and let the guys know that we are that good. We’re better than people think. We just need to maintain our health and get after it, see how many of these teams we can go up against and shock somebody.”

The Owls’ season begins on Feb. 17, when they host the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at Reckling Park.

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