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Owls swept by Fighting Irish in season-opening series

Junior pitcher Parker Smith pitches on opening night against the University of Notre Dame. The Owls were swept at home by the Fighting Irish to open their season. Courtesy Rice Baseball

By Ana Rivera     2/20/24 10:24pm

Kicking off the season with high hopes, Rice baseball faced a tough start this past weekend. They were swept by the University of Notre Dame at home in their opening series, unable to secure a victory over three games. The Owls suffered a 3-1 loss on Friday night, followed by a 9-5 defeat on Saturday afternoon and concluded with a 13-10 loss on Sunday. 

“You definitely want to start off with a win on Opening Day,” head coach Jose Cruz, Jr. said. “Ultimately, it came down to a mistake, an error on our part and things that led to some runs. That was the difference in this first game.”

After junior starting pitcher Parker Smith completed a seamless 1-2-3 inning to start the game, senior infielder Nathan Becker drove in a run with a two-out RBI single, giving the Owls an early lead. In the top of the second, Smith faced pressure as he loaded the bases and walked a batter, resulting in a run. 

With the score tied at 1-1 through five innings, the Owls brought junior right-handed pitcher Jack Ben-Shoshan to relieve Smith with runners on first and second. However, Ben-Shoshan struggled, allowing an infield single and hitting the next batter, giving the Fighting Irish a 2-1 lead. The inning concluded with the score at 3-1 after a fielder’s choice play by the senior first baseman Jack Riedel.

Cruz said that Smith remained competitive, even though this wasn’t his strongest performance, and added that the offense wasn’t at their best either. 

“Parker was good. I was looking at his numbers, and despite not being at his best, it’s still one earned run,” Cruz said. “But ultimately, we scored one run, and we have to score more to win a ball game. I think our offensive side of what we’re doing is way better than what it showed today.”

On a positive note, Cruz pointed out sophomore pitcher Davion Hickson’s standout performance. The transfer from Florida State pitched impressively, yielding no hits or runs in four innings. 

“I’m really happy for Davion,” Cruz said. “He came in and pitched exceptionally well. Davion takes everything to heart and executes to give us a chance to succeed.”

On Saturday, Rice junior starting pitcher J.D. McCracken took the mound, but Notre Dame quickly took the lead in the first inning. In the bottom of the first, Jack Riedel’s home run tied the game 1-1, followed by Manny Garza’s single that gave the Owls a 2-1 lead. Riedel stayed productive, hitting a sac fly in the fourth to extend the lead to 3-2. 

However, Notre Dame capitalized on passed balls and wild pitches to regain the lead. Despite this, McCracken struck out the next batter, minimizing the damage. In the bottom of the fifth, graduate student outfielder Brendan Cumming’s triple allowed Garza to score, tying the game. 

The game remained back and forth until the top of the eighth inning when senior closer Tyler Hamilton’s walk led to sophomore pitcher Garrett Stratton giving up a crucial home run, putting Notre Dame ahead 6-4. In the top of the ninth, Rice brought in redshirt junior pitcher Tom Vincent, who struggled, giving up significant hits and errors, resulting in a final score of 9-5 in favor of Notre Dame.

The Owls struck first on Sunday, with Florida State transfer junior infielder Trayton Rank’s two-run home run giving them the lead in the bottom of the first. Sophomore pitcher Jackson Mayo started on the mound for the Owls and held Notre Dame to no earned runs through three innings. Despite Rice extending their lead to 3-0, Notre Dame capitalized with two consecutive homers off junior reliever Mauricio Rodriguez. 

The Owls continued to perform well at the plate, but their pitching struggled. Notre Dame seized the lead in the top of the seventh inning, going up 8-7. The Owls responded in the bottom of the eighth, but Notre Dame matched them. The game remained tight until the top of the ninth, where Notre Dame widened their lead to 13-10.

“We didn't get the results we wanted from the weekend,” Cruz said. “It's the first weekend, and everybody's getting their feet wet, so there's a little bit of grace there. There were a few things that we could have done better. I think our lack of depth on Sunday cost us that game.”

Despite the sweep, senior outfielder and catcher Ben Dukes had many positive reflections on the weekend.

“There were a lot of bright spots and a lot of low spots,” Dukes said. We have the talent to perform and compete with anybody, and the “want-to” factor is necessary. Commitment to the goal as a team has been shown by everybody, and now it is time to put it on display. Opening weekend jitters are out. Time to play ball.”

Cruz discussed the team’s philosophy and their aspirations for improvement as the season begins to unfold.  

“The whole thing now is just having the guys understand our standard and what we expect from them,” Cruz said. “What our brand of baseball is and what you have to do in order to be able to be in the lineup and be a contributing member of our team that leads to wins.”

The Owls hosted Sam Houston State University Tuesday night, but the game finished after publication. The Owls will travel to Lafayette, Louisiana for a three-game series this weekend to face the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. 

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