UTSA baseball opens conference play, takes three of four over Rice

Ian+Bailey+squares+a+ball+up+during+a+game+earlier+this+season.+Bailey+has+started+17+games+for+the+%27Runners+this+season+and+leads+the+team+in+HRs+with+5.

Julia Maenius

Ian Bailey squares a ball up during a game earlier this season. Bailey has started 17 games for the ‘Runners this season and leads the team in HRs with 5.

Ryder Martin, Sports Editor

UTSA baseball (11-8, C-USA 3-1) got conference play off to a roaring start over the weekend, taking three out of four games on the road against the Rice University Owls (12-12, C-USA 1-3). The ‘Runners opened things up on Friday, March 26, in an absolute romp 16-4 before dropping the first game of a doubleheader the next day 8-10. The ‘Runners responded in the second game of the double header, however, taking a close 4-1 victory. The series wrapped up on Sunday afternoon when the ‘Runners put an exclamation point on the series with a blowout win by a final score of 11-3. 

Game one of the series opened with both teams’ offenses in absolute overdrive. UTSA got things started with a three-run home run from Nick Thornquist, his fourth of the season, as he capitalized on a hanging breaking pitch to send the ball soaring over the right field wall. The ‘Runners were not ready for the inning to end there, though, as Chase Keng saw a pitch he liked on a 2-1 count and ripped it over the centerfield wall for a two-run home run to give UTSA an early 5-0 lead after the top of the first. It was a lead that was not safe, however, as Rice came back in the bottom half of the inning and jumped on UTSA starter Luke Malone (1-1, 5.06 ERA). Malone looked uncomfortable out on the mound, and he quickly allowed a three-run homer to Rice’s Guy Garibay to draw the Owls within two. This was immediately followed by a solo home run by Cade Edwards, and a five-run lead had vanished in an instant for the ‘Runners. From there, Malone settled in and escaped the inning without any further harm. At the top of the second, UTSA responded to widen the lead once more. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Thornquist struck again, this time with his body instead of his bat, as he was hit by a pitch allowing Griffin Paxton to walk home. Joshua Lamb delivered a sacrifice fly to score Rock and UTSA stretched the lead to 7-4 after the top of the second. Malone allowed the first two batters he faced in the second to reach safely, but he got a double-play ball right after to leave just a runner on third and two outs. Despite this, Malone’s day was done as coach Pat Hallmark decided to make a change on the mound bringing in Hunter Mason (3-3, 4.26 ERA) to get the final out of the inning, which he accomplished. Holding on to a three-run lead, the ‘Runners broke the game wide open in the third, putting up eight runs. The big inning was almost entirely due to the home run ball; Keng started the inning with a mammoth leadoff solo home run to right field. Wanting to join in on the fun, Lamb came through with the bases loaded later in the inning, cranking a grand slam to left field to give UTSA a commanding 13-4 lead. The ‘Runners were not finished with the Owls just yet in the third, though, as Keng came back for more. Stepping up with two out in the inning and Jonathan Tapia standing on first, Keng unleashed on a 3-2 pitch and crushed it over the right field wall for his third home run of the game. Keng’s three home runs tied a program record; a feat accomplished only five times in program history and last achieved by Ryan Hutson in 2011. The ‘Runners cruised from there, adding another run in the fourth, while Mason and Kyle Sonduck (0-0, 9.00 ERA) worked 5.1 innings of scoreless ball, allowing only three hits. With both teams set to play a double header the following day, the game was called after seven innings, resulting in a 16-4 Roadrunners victory.

Game two was one of missed opportunities for UTSA. The Owls jumped out to an early 0-3 lead after three innings, as UTSA starter Reece Easterling (1-0, 4.70 ERA) lasted just two innings, allowing four hits, three earned runs, one walk and recording one strikeout. The ‘Runners’ bats finally woke up in the fourth when Tapia hid a sacrifice fly to score Thornquist, and Shea Gutierrez hit an RBI single to score Lamb to cut the lead to 2-3. Not even giving the Rice pitching staff a chance to breathe, the ‘Runners came right back in the top of the fifth and surged ahead. Thornquist scored Paxton on a fielder’s choice to tie the game at three, and then Keng gave UTSA their first lead of the game with a two-RBI bloop single up the middle. Rice got a run back in the bottom of the sixth as UTSA clung to a 5-4 lead heading into the final frame. At the top of the seventh, the ‘Runners set about adding some insurance runs. Tapia started things off with a single to score Thornquist after a Rice throwing error; Keng struck again with an RBI double to the left and then scored after Gutierrez was thrown out, executing a picture-perfect double-steal play. UTSA was limited from there and entered the final inning with an 8-4 lead. As has been the case numerous times this season, the bullpen could not hold up when it counted most. Daniel Garza (1-0, 5.19 ERA) allowed a three-run homer as Rice drew within one, and Hallmark had seen enough from his reliever, bringing in Mason once again after his solid work the night before. Mason allowed a single to the first batter he faced before getting a strikeout to leave UTSA one out away from escaping with the win. It was not to be, as Mason allowed a single before squaring off against Edwards, who blasted a walk-off three-run home run to left field to give the Owls the win in game two of the series 8-10.

With the series marked by poor starting pitching so far, game three of the series was a change of pace as UTSA’s Simon Miller (2-0, 2.76 ERA) turned in an absolute gem on the mound. Miller took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and finished the day with six innings pitched, allowing two hits, one earned run, three walks and striking out six Owls. Making sure not to let their pitcher’s dominance go to waste, UTSA staked a lead early as Paxton scored in the first on an error by the Rice catcher. Keng then continued his reign of terror over Rice pitching with an RBI single to right to score Dylan Rock and give UTSA a 2-0 lead after the first. Leyton Barry increased the lead to 3-0 with an RBI single to left to score Lamb in the fourth. Miller lost his no-hitter in the sixth with a single up the middle by Edwards, and another single later in the inning scored Edwards to cost Miller the shutout. Miller retired the next batter he faced to bring his day to a close. In the seventh, UTSA tacked on an insurance run when Thornquist was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded for the second time in three games. Arturo Guajardo (0-0, 5.40 ERA) was called on to close the game out in the bottom of the seventh, and he obliged, slamming the door shut on the Owls, working a 1-2-3 inning as UTSA took game three of the series by a final score of 4-1. 

The final game of the series served as yet another resounding demonstration of UTSA’s offensive might. The ‘Runners put up three in the first inning, with two of those runs coming off the back of a two-run homer by Lamb. The lead was extended to 4-0 in the second after a wild pitch allowed Taylor Barber to come in and score. Kobe Jaramillo (1-0, 5.25 ERA) got the start for the ‘Runners and worked a scoreless first inning but ran into trouble in the second, as Edwards struck again, this time with a 3 RBI double to draw the Owls within one at 4-3. Jaramillo settled in from there, though, allowing just two hits over his next three innings of work, finishing the day with a career-long outing of five innings, allowing five hits, three runs, two walks and striking out three. With the lead sitting at one, UTSA put some distance between the two teams in the fourth. Ian Bailey’s solo home run to lead off the inning kickstarted a five-run fourth for the ‘Runners as the lead swelled to 9-3. A 2 RBI single from Taylor Barber in the sixth grew UTSA’s lead to eight. With an eight-run lead, Jaramillo’s day was done, and the ball was turned over to Grant Miller (0-1, 6.94 ERA). Miller was fantastic in relief, working four innings of shutout ball, allowing five hits and striking out two as UTSA cruised the rest of the way to an 11-3 win in game four to secure the series victory.

UTSA’s series win over Rice had to feel good for Hallmark, previously an all-conference catcher for the Owls who served as a coach there for eleven seasons. The UTSA offense continues to be the absolute standout feature of this team as they currently rank 29th in the country in runs scored. Griffin Paxton’s hot start to the season has continued as he sits in a tie for 92nd in the country in batting, average hitting .389. For this series, though, the apex predator at the plate was Keng, who went 8-15 with three HR, nine RBIs and a 1.200 slugging percentage over the course of four games. Keng’s efforts saw him named the national player of the week by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. After an eleven-game road swing, UTSA will return to the friendly confines of Roadrunner field for their conference home opener when they take on the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (14-9, C-USA 1-3). The series will get started on Thursday, April 1 at 6 p.m., with a double header following on Friday, before the finale on Saturday morning. The games will be available to watch on CUSA.tv.