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Monday, April 15, 2024 — Houston, TX

Baseball breaks out brooms in Birmingham


Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

By Ben Baker-Katz     3/21/23 10:08pm

Rice baseball swept the University of Alabama at Birmingham last weekend, the first time they’ve opened Conference USA play with a sweep since 2015. It was a chilly weekend in Birmingham — game time temperatures were around 35 degrees on Sunday — but according to head coach Jose Cruz Jr., the Owls were able to grind out a few wins despite the cold.

“It’s definitely satisfying to start [conference] on the right foot,” Cruz said. “The conditions were difficult, it was cold and windy — it was uncomfortable out there. But both teams play in the same conditions, so we tried to tough it out as best as possible and … we were able to pull it out.”

The first game of the series on Friday night was the only one that wasn’t particularly close. Junior outfielder Connor Walsh opened the scoring for the Owls with a three-run home run in the third inning, and after ceding a lone run in the fifth, they tacked on five over the last two innings for an 8-1 victory.

On Saturday, the game was tied at one heading into the 7th inning before a single from graduate infielder Drew Holderbach gave them the 2-1 lead that they held onto for the win. Sunday saw another game knotted at one, this time into the 10th inning, before a single from sophomore catcher Manny Garza gave the Owls’ the lead. After tacking on another run, the graduate pitcher Krishna Raj closed the door in the bottom of the 10th, securing his third save on the year and a 3-1 victory. Cruz said that Raj, who recorded his second save just the day before, is the kind of person who loves to pitch under pressure.

“Raj seems to relish that late-in-the-game situation,” Cruz said. “He’s the most unassuming guy, [a] very quiet guy, then you put them in on the mound and he becomes a maniac.”

The story of the weekend, however, was the Owl pitching staff as a whole, as 11 pitchers combined to cover 28 innings. No pitcher threw more than 4.1 innings, and though 38 Dragons reached base, only three managed to score. According to Cruz, the Owls bullpen kept them in the fight all weekend. 

“The pitching was really good, the bullpen was outstanding, it was almost a pass-the-baton type thing,” Cruz said. “All the guys brought in great energy [and] they executed.” 

Cruz said that he intends to continue pitching by committee, and that he’s not worried about defining roles on the pitching staff for now.

“It’s just trying to create the best matchups for our guys that we can,” Cruz said. “We have guys that throw from all kinds of slots, so there are better matchups for certain guys and not so good for other guys … It doesn’t necessarily matter if we have a starter or an opener, whatever, as long as we pitch nine innings.”

The Owls now head into the heart of their conference season, after playing a number of highly ranked teams early in the year, including a series against then-No. 2 Stanford University, multiple games against then-No. 15 Texas A&M University and a win against now-No. 14 Texas Tech University. According to Cruz, that early exposure to some of the best college baseball in the country prepared the Owls well for their upcoming schedule.

“In many ways it’s like, we’ve seen it, right?” Cruz said. “We’ve seen really good hitting, we’ve seen a lot of the better pitchers in the nation. Now here we go to conference, we’re a little more battle tested, we’re a little more confident in what we can do.”

The Owls will host the University of Texas at San Antonio this weekend at Reckling Park. First pitch on Friday is at 3 p.m.

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