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Sunday, February 25, 2024 — Houston, TX

Baseball drops back-and-forth series to first-place UTSA

Photo courtesy Maria Lysaker - Rice Athletics

By Landry Wood     3/28/23 9:50pm

When the Rice baseball team entered their series against the University of Texas at San Antonio, they were a game over 0.500 and undefeated in conference. At the end they were neither. The Roadrunners took the first and third games off the Owls at Reckling Park, bringing the home team to a 12-12 overall record and a 4-2 record in conference. According to head coach Jose Cruz Jr., however, the series was not entirely a disappointment.

“[UTSA is] a very good team, arguably the best team in our conference,” Cruz said. “A lot of talent, very offensive, very fundamentally sound … and we hung in there with them. We took them to extra innings on Friday, we grinded them out on Saturday, and [Sunday] it was a tug of war until the end … It’s hard to say that I’m satisfied, but I’m excited about how much heart our guys showed and just how much want-to they have.”

The weekend’s first game was a pitching duel, once each team’s starter settled in after both gave up two-run home runs in the first inning. Sophomore pitcher Parker Smith broke Rice’s recent pitch-by-committee trend by throwing a career-high 6.1 innings, allowing only the two initial earned runs and a later unearned one on a wild pitch. In the bottom of the ninth, freshman catcher Paul Smith was pinch hit with runners on first and second and two outs; naturally, he singled to drive in the tying run. Despite these heroics from Smith, which junior outfielder Guy Garibay Jr. said have been key for the team, the Owls eventually dropped the game in the eleventh inning, 4-3, on a bases-loaded single.

“The freshmen, doing what they’re doing, are playing a big part this year, both offensively and defensively,” Garibay said. “Obviously, Paul Smith getting those clutch hits was a big game changer for us.”

As a departure from the pitching-dominated series opener, the next two contests would be hitting arms races. Rice combined for six home runs over Saturday and Sunday, their most in back-to-back games since 2016, and scored 18 runs on 18 hits. Saturday was explosive; for every run the Roadrunners put on the board, the Owls answered back immediately with more. There seemed to be hope for a UTSA rally in the eighth until graduate closer Krishna Raj came in to cut it down, earning his fourth save of the season. The pitching committee was out in full force, enjoying run support particularly from Smith and fellow freshman Ben Royo, each launching multi-run homers, and Garibay, who had his third straight game with a home run. All this came together for a clean 13-8 win to tie the series.

“I’ve seen that potential [in Ben Royo] for a bit,” Cruz said. “That’s why he gets those opportunities to play. I think he’s as talented as anyone on our team, really … he’s coming up with big hits and big plays on the field. I don’t look at him as a freshman but as one of our baseball players, so I’m trying to get him some more experience, an opportunity to be successful, and he’s taking it.”

The morning mist still hung over the field when Royo and sophomore  infielder Aaron Smigelski homered to left on consecutive pitches to open up Rice’s scoring on Sunday, taking a one run lead in the second. However, the Roadrunners homered twice more in the third and fifth to jump out to a 5-3 lead, only for the score to be evened in the sixth by a home run from junior infielder/outfielder Connor Walsh. At this point both bullpens tightened up, allowing only three total hits in the remaining three innings, but the Owls weren’t strict enough to prevent UTSA from squeaking out a run in the eighth to take the game 6-5, winning the series. Not all, however, is doom and gloom. Cruz said he has faith in the talent of his ball players and the experience they’re gaining.

“I think so far the team is taking the steps we want them to,” Cruz said. “We’re definitely doing some good things, we’ve had some growing pains and lost some close ones. We’ve been very competitive with very good teams. So now we just keep building, keep giving ourselves the chance and opportunity to win close games, and see what happens.”

Over the weekend, the Owls travel to Boca Raton for a three-game series against Florida Atlantic University.

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