By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
UTSA righthander Daniel Shafer retired one batter in the eighth inning and three straight in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday afternoon as the streaking UTSA Roadrunners won a Conference USA road series, downing the Rice Owls, 6-5.
With the victory, the Roadrunners (20-5, 5-1 in the C-USA) improved to 12-2 in their last 14 games and maintained a hold on first place early in the conference race.
Powered by three home runs, the Owls (12-12, 4-2) rallied into a 3-2 lead early in the game and came back again to tie 5-5 in the late innings.
But behind the relief pitching of Ruger Riojas, Fischer Kingsbery and Shafer, the Roadrunners captured the series against the Owls at Reckling Park in Houston. Leyton Barry doubled in the eighth inning for an RBI and a 6-5 lead for the Roadrunners.
UTSA won the series opener on Friday, claiming a 4-3 victory in 11 innings. Rice responded Saturday, exploding past the visitors from San Antonio, 13-8.
In response, the Roadrunners came back on Sunday, played error-free baseball and emerged with their second one-run victory on the weekend and their third of the season.
Kingsbury worked two scoreless innings without allowing a hit to earn his first victory. He is 1-0. Shafer struck out one and cruised to his second save in the series and his team-leading fifth for the season. Blake Brogdon was the losing pitcher, falling to 1-2, despite striking out six in 3 and 1/3 innings.
UTSA 20-5, 5-1
Rice 12-12, 4-2
UTSA at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tuesday, 6 p.m.
UTSA at Rice baseball
Game 3 summary
Capitalizing on Rice starter Tom Vincent’s control problems, the Roadrunners took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second inning. Vincent set the UTSA rally in motion when he hit Sammy Diaz with a pitch. Vincent walked three more in the inning.
Both Shane Sirdashney and Isaiah Walker worked the count to 3-2 before they drew bases-loaded walks to drive in the first two runs of the game. With the bases loaded, UTSA had a chance to do more damage, but Leyton Barry grounded out to end the threat.
Down by two runs early for the third straight day, the Owls retaliated with three runs in their next at bat against UTSA starter Zach Royse.
The surge came suddenly, as the three runs scored on two swings of the bat. First, Royse walked the leadoff man. Next, Aaron Smigelski clubbed a two-run homer. On the next pitch, Ben Royo hit a solo shot.
Given the one-run lead to protect, Vincent couldn’t get it done. After UTSA’s Antonio Valdez led off the third and reached on an error, Sammy Diaz belted a two-run homer, and the Roadrunners once again assumed the lead, 4-3.
The Owls, in response, replaced Vincent. His day was done. Right-handed reliever Tyler Hamilton took the mound and retired three of the next four batters.
In the bottom half of the third, the Roadrunners also made a pitching change, going to freshman righthander Ruger Riojas, who promptly started his day by retiring three straight.
Riojas continued to throw strikes and find success in the fourth. After yielding a two-out double to Aaron Smigelski, the first-year player from Wimberley High School came off the mound, fielded a ground ball and threw out Ben Royo to end the inning.
With Riojas finding his groove, Valdez stepped up on offense to create more momentum for the Roadrunners. He led off the top of the fifth by pulling a pitch and drilling it for a solo homer over the right field wall. Valdez’s eighth homer of the year boosted UTSA’s lead to 5-3.
After Josh Killeen followed with a one-out double to deep right, Rice elected to stay with Hamilton, who promptly walked Matt King. At that point, Rice coaches had seen enough, and Blake Brogdon entered as the Owls’ third pitcher. Brogdon closed the door on UTSA, getting Taylor Smith on a long fly ball to center to end it.
As the game reached the middle innings, Riojas emerged as a force for UTSA. A freshman from Wimberley, Riojas cruised through the third, fourth and fifth by retiring nine out of 10 Rice batters. He struck out two in the bottom of the fifth as UTSA maintained its two-run lead.
With Brogdon throwing well for Rice and shutting out UTSA in the top of the sixth, UTSA coach Pat Hallmark didn’t hesitate — he sent Riojas out for his fourth inning on the day.
Nonetheless, the Owls exploded again. First, Guy Garibay Jr. singled up the middle, and then Connor Walsh belted a two-run home run. As Walsh crossed the plate, Rice had tied the game, 5-5. It was Rice’s third homer of the day and its fifth in the series.
UTSA’s Fischer Kingsbery, a junior from Leander, replaced Riojas and finished the inning, walking one but retiring Ben Royo on a pop up to the infield.
In the top of the eighth, UTSA’s Taylor Smith led off with a single and moved to second on a ground ball.
As Brogdon exited the playing field with two outs, Jack Ben-Shoshan came in to pitch for the Owls. The first batter, Leyton Barry, greeted him with an RBI double to give UTSA a 6-5 lead. Next up, Valdez smoked a ball to right field but it was caught, ending the inning.
In the bottom half, Hallmark had some choices to make. First and foremost, how long should he stay with Kingsbery? Well, Kingsbery did his job, retiring two straight. From there, Hallmark lifted him for Daniel Shafer, who ended the inning with one pitch. Walsh, who had homered in his last at bat, flied out to right.
On Friday, the Roadrunners won the opener, 4-3, in 11 innings. Freshman Tye Odom delivered the go-ahead run in the top of the 11th with an RBI single. Simon Miller pitched 4 and 2/3 innings of relief for the victory, and Daniel Shafer got the last two outs for the save.
On Saturday, Manny Garza and Paul Smith drove in three runs apiece as the Owls bounced back from the series-opening loss for a 13-8 victory. In a game that featured three lead changes, Rice pounded out 13 hits and took advantage of eight UTSA walks to even the best-of-three at one win apiece.