By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
Three days after suffering their most lopsided loss of the season, the 22nd-ranked UTSA Roadrunners will return to Conference USA play tonight as they host the Rice Owls in the opener of a three-game series. First pitch is at 6 p.m. at Roadrunner Field.
UTSA yielded 18 hits, including five home runs, in an 18-2 loss at home Tuesday night to the Sam Houston Houston State Bearkats.
With 10 games left in the regular season, a series of bounce-back performances against Rice this weekend might be considered crucial to the team’s long-term goals of a C-USA title and an NCAA tournament bid.
All C-USA teams have nine conference games remaining over the next three weekends, with the conference tournament looming May 24-28 in Houston. The front-runners in the chase are the Dallas Baptist Patriots (18-3), the Roadrunners (16-4) and the Charlotte 49ers (12-8).
This weekend, Dallas Baptist, UTSA and Charlotte are all playing at home. The Patriots face a test from the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, while the Roadrunners take on the Owls in a series for the second time this season, and the 49ers meet FAU.
Earlier this season, the Roadrunners won two of three in a closely-contested series against Rice at Houston.
Parker Smith, the Owls’ Friday night starter, plus relief pitchers Matthew Linskey and Krishna Raj, all had productive outings in the series played at Reckling Park.
UTSA won the opener, 4-3 in 11 innings. Rice bounced back to claim a 13-8 decision in the second game and then UTSA rebounded to take the finale, 6-5.
Offensively for Rice, Guy Garibay homered in each of the first two games. Drew Holderbach, Manny Garza and Ben Royo all had multi-hit performances in Game Two. In the third game, the Owls bashed three more home runs, including one each by Aaron Smigelski, Royo and Connor Walsh.
The difference in the series for UTSA stemmed from solid performances in the opener by pitchers Luke Malone and Simon Miller, who combined to shut down the Owls for 10 and 1/3 innings. Also, in the series finale, UTSA’s bullpen work from Ruger Riojas, Fischer Kingsbery and Daniel Shafer was crucial.
In addition, Antonio Valdez produced three hits and three RBIs over the weekend and pounded home runs in both victories. Also in the three games, Josh Killeen had six hits and Sammy Valdez three, with three runs scored. Diaz homered and had two RBIs in the finale.
The Roadrunners haven’t played as well lately as they have for most of the season. They’re 6-4 in their last 10 games, and they had to scramble to secure wins over Houston Christian and UAB in that stretch.
Roadrunners having success at the plate lately include Caleb Hill (.454 over his last six games), Taylor Smith (.413 in his last eight) and Leyton Barry (.395 in his last 12). On the mound, Miller has been dynamic. The 6-foot-2 junior righthander from Canton hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last four appearances. Also in that span, he has struck out eight batters in seven innings.
Miller is a potential All-America candidate with a season record of 7-0, 10 saves and a 1.10 ERA. Moreover, the Roadrunners are 19-2 when he pitches. UTSA is also 9-3 when Malone pitches in a game. Lately, though, the senior righty from Round Rock has struggled a bit, allowing nine earned runs in 12 and 2/3 innings over his last two starts. Malone, the team’s Friday night starter, is 6-3 with a 3.13 ERA for the season.
UTSA 33-12, 16-4
Rice 17-27, 7-14
Rice at UTSA, Friday, 6 p.m.
Rice at UTSA, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Rice at UTSA, Sunday, 1 p.m.
UTSA took a significant tumble in the NCAA’s ratings percentage index this week. Before the lopsided loss to Sam Houston, the team’s RPI was at No. 47. It fell in the days afterward, and by Friday morning, it was at No. 57.
An RPI in the 30s going into NCAA tournament selection day is considered crucial for programs vying for at-large berths into the 64-team national field. After losing in the C-USA finals last season, UTSA was 37th going into selection day and didn’t receive a bid.
Given the history, RPI is a statistic to watch in the coming weeks. Going into Friday night, Dallas Baptist has the top RPI in the conference at No. 19, and UTSA is second. FAU is next at 67, followed by Charlotte (74), Louisiana Tech (127) and Rice (145) Bringing up the rear, Middle Tennessee is 170, followed by Western Kentucky (174), UAB (179) and FIU (208).
UTSA plays three games at home next week against C-USA leading Dallas Baptist (May 12-14). After a non-conference game at Abilene Christian the following week (on May 16), UTSA finishes its conference schedule with three on the road at Louisiana Tech. The LA Tech series (May 18-20) is scheduled to start on a Thursday and run through Saturday.