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Baseball takes series against Ragin’ Cajuns, falls short of sweep finale

Junior starting pitcher J.D. McCracken pitches during his dominant shutout on Saturday afternoon. The Owls won two of three games against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Ana Rivera     2/27/24 11:00pm

Over the weekend, Rice Baseball secured a series win on the road against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, capturing victories on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 with scores of 2-1 and 6-1, respectively. However, their quest for a sweep fell short as they suffered a 3-0 loss on Sunday afternoon. 

The team’s weekend series in Lafayette moves the Owls to an overall 3-4 record. Head coach Jose Cruz Jr. said he was proud of his team’s effort against a strong opponent. 

“This first game was very intense from start to finish,” Cruz Jr. said. “We are playing a really good team that is well-coached and competes at the regional caliber every year. Throwing their best guy at us, we competed against him very well..” 

Junior starting pitcher Parker Smith set the tone early on in the first game of the series as he allowed just one hit and struck out five batters through the first five innings of the game. Smith capped his performance by conceding one run across seven innings, reducing his ERA to 1.64 across his first two starts. The Owls’ offense provided Smith with run support early in the game as junior catcher Manny Garza drove home the Owls’ two runs, one in the first inning and another in the third.

With a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, Cruz Jr. called on transfer sophomore pitcher Davion Hickson to relieve Smith and secure a series-opening victory. However, Hickson almost immediately found himself into a difficult position after hitting a Ragin’ Cajun batter and allowing a single, putting runners on first and second base with just one out. Needing to protect the Owls’ one-run lead, Hickson forced two ground-outs to end the eighth and closed out the game with a 1-2-3 inning in the ninth to secure his first career save. 

Following the game, Smith said he was happy with his performance on Friday night and said he hopes to continue this level of play throughout the rest of the season.

“Competing at a high-caliber program like Rice, you aim for moments like these,” Smith said. “These regional settings are exactly where we strive to be, and we anticipate facing similar challenges throughout the year.”

On Saturday, junior starting pitcher J.D. McCracken pitched a complete game, the first for the Owls since 2019. He allowed six hits and issued a single walk, setting a personal best with 11 strikeouts, including striking out the side in both the seventh and ninth innings. McCracken said after the game that he was proud of his effort in helping lead his squad to a series victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns. 

“I know that college baseball is a three-game series, “ McCracken said. “I know that one game doesn’t mean anything. You have to scrap your way to win a series, and I knew that I would have a big role in that. I knew I’d give us a chance today and I ended up being better than I imagined, for sure.”

To support McCracken’s pitching performance on Saturday afternoon, the Owls’ offense stayed consistent at the plate, continuing their trend of early offensive prowess. Specifically, an early theme for the Owls’ offense this season, which was also displayed throughout this series, is Rice’s ability to get ahead of their opponents early into games. 

Out of seven games played, the Owls have taken early leads in six of those matchups. This helped McCracken on Saturday when he was given a 2-0 lead in the first inning with consecutive RBI singles from Garza and senior first baseman Jack Riedel. Rice added another run in the third when sophomore infielder Ben Royo scored on a wild pitch. Graduate outfielder Kyte McDonald then boosted the lead to 4-1 with a home run off the scoreboard in the seventh, and senior infielder Nathan Becker’s two-run double in the ninth provided additional insurance.

“It was just a great job done,” Cruz said. “We had back-to-back phenomenal starts by our pitchers, and hopefully more to come in the future. Our team has great chemistry, and we are happy with today’s result. I think we still have a lot to prove, but we are elevating the standard right now of what Rice Baseball is all about. We are building upon our successes, but we want to reach even greater heights.”

The series finale was a different story, however. The Ragin’ Cajuns secured their first lead of the series with an RBI ground-out and a two-out solo homer in the third inning, giving them a 2-0 lead. The Owls failed to get going on the offensive end as they remained without a baserunner until senior infielder Pierce Gallo’s leadoff single in the fifth inning. Gallo advanced to second base but was left stranded, as was McDonald after a leadoff double in the seventh. 

Despite having 23 at-bats with runners in scoring position in the first two games, the Owls were limited to just five chances during the third game of the series. The hosts sealed their victory on Sunday afternoon after an eighth-inning solo homer to give the Ragin’ Cajuns a 3-0 advantage over the Owls. This shutout marked the first time the Owls had been held scoreless since they dropped a 6-0 defeat at Middle Tennessee last April. 

The Owls face a challenging opponent midweek when they host the defending national champions, No. 2 Louisiana State University, at Reckling Park on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+. 

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