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HOUSTON – Junior first baseman Zach Zubia stepped to the plate in the top of the third moments after his team relinquished a first-inning lead. Starter Bryce Elder hit three batters in the second, and the third occasion gave the Rice Owls a 2-1 advantage.
Texas tied it in the top of the third with a RBI double from senior Austin Todd. After watching senior Duke Ellis strike out, Zubia stepped to the plate. Rice’s Alex DeLeon delivered a pitch and it took milliseconds before all 3,044 at Reckling Park knew where it was going: over the fence and straight to the Wendel D. Ley Scoreboard in right.
“I was just trying to be aggressive early in the count,” Zubia said. “Just trying to get the job done. We had a runner on second there. Runs are important. That’s what we’ve been preaching all year, score the guy. I got a good pitch and put a good swing on it.”
That swing gave Texas a 4-2 lead, but they weren’t finished with the power display. Freshman Trey Faltine put a ball inside the left field foul pole in the fourth to Elder’s benefit, and junior Murphy Stehly’s line drive dinger in the seventh gave Longhorn relievers plenty of cushion to work with. Senior Donny Diaz saved Elder’s 6.0 innings of work for a season-opening 7-4 win.
Zubia is Texas’ main home run threat, but he struggled to put baseballs over fences last season. After just one game in 2020, he’s one-fifth of the way to his 2019 total.
“We lacked in home runs last year a little bit and hard hit balls in general,” Zubia said. “I think we did a really good job today of hitting the ball hard when it’s pitched in our zones and laying off the pitches the pitchers want us to hit.”
His production Friday wasn’t limited to the long ball. He drove in Ellis in the first inning on a sacrifice fly Owl right fielder Bradley Gneiting caught in a diving effort.
Following his third inning blast, he drove in Stehly on a fielder’s choice in the fifth to give Texas a 6-3 lead. Zubia finished 1-for-2 with four RBIs and a walk.
Other members of the Texas lineup made solid contact against DeLeon for all 4.0 innings he pitched. It started early with Ellis smacking a triple into right-center in the top of the first. He was brought home by Zubia’s sacrifice.
The left side of the infield got theirs, too. Faltine added his homer and made contact in all four at bats. Stehly was 3-for-4 in his Texas debut, ending up a triple short of the cycle. He doubled in the third and singled in the fifth before his seventh-inning shot.
Texas sent 38 players to the plate Friday, and only five struck out.
“I thought we had quality at bats when we weren’t successful as well as producing runs. We drove three balls out of the ballpark, and the ball Zubia hit was just crushed,” Longhorns head coach David Pierce said.
Elder admittedly didn’t have his best stuff. Rice plated two in the second off of some UT miscues. A runner reached first on a fielder’s choice. Elder then hit two straight hitters to load the bases.
“I just think things kind of sped up,” Elder said. “We came out there, talked about it, and settled back in.”
“It wasn’t like I was just saying ‘oh, I’m going to keep doing it and keep hitting guys,’” Elder continued. “I was trying to make adjustments. The ball just kept slipping out.”
He forced a ground ball to Stehly at third, who threw to senior DJ Petrinsky at the plate. The umpire ruled that although Petrinsky had possession of the ball, he never stepped on the plate for the force.
Elder eventually got out of the inning, and surrendered one more run the rest of his outing. His final line read 6.0 innings, four hits, three runs, two earned, one walk, and six strikeouts.
Pierce noted Elder and the rest of the team didn’t deliver a perfect performance, but still gave an effort that delivered the victory.
“Bryce battled,” he said. “He was not even close to his best, but gosh dang, he gave us a shot to win and just hung in there.”
Sophomore Cole Quintanilla relieved Elder and allowed one earned run over 1.2 innings. He was replaced by junior Tristan Stevens, who struck out the only batter he faced in the eighth.
Diaz closed out the ninth without issue, and Texas opened the season with a win.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is being locked in every single pitch,” Zubia said. “As a team, I think we did a great job today of just being locked in every single pitch and giving pitchers tough outs even if we did get out.”
Texas attempts to take the series Saturday with sophomore Ty Madden taking the mound for Texas. First pitch is set for 5 p.m.