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Each time Texas head coach David Pierce walks to the mound to call in a reliever, it’s a search for a solution from the right field bullpen.
The first two members of the starting rotation, junior Nolan Kingham and sophomore Blair Henley, have performed well this year, combining to go 6-3 over 10 starts. When it’s time to replace either of those two, that’s when it’s been a trip.
Fourteen different arms have made the run in from the bullpen this year including Kingham and previous weekend starter, junior Chase Shugart. Texas’ use of normal weekend guys in relief situations, Kingham on Tuesdays and Shugart normally on Fridays, shows Pierce’s dedication to getting the win however he can.
“If they’re healthy and they want the ball and we feel like they can bounce back, we’ll utilize them there, both on Tuesday and potentially Friday and Saturday nights,” Pierce said Wednesday. “That’s something that we’ve done in the past and it’s something that’s given us the best opportunity to win the game. That’s what it’s about.”
Kingham’s two mid-week relief appearances have been stellar and have come as a result of Tuesdays being his normal bullpen days. Over two relief innings, he has only one walk against his record. On Tuesday against Sam Houston State, Kingham showed higher velocity than normal and complete dominance of Bearkat hitters.
Despite Kingham’s excellence when coming out of the bullpen, Pierce knows his team is better served with Kingham getting the ball on Friday night.
“No, we haven’t gotten there of moving that or having that thought at all,” Pierce said. “He’s just too valuable on the Friday night for us.”
So instead of Kingham, Pierce has turned to another weekend option for bullpen innings. Shugart began the year as Texas’ Saturday guy, but with Henley’s repeated great performances, Shugart shifted to Sunday.
Then, Sunday shifted to TBD so Pierce could potentially use his reliever-turned-starter once again as a reliever.
“I just think the kid wants to win,” Pierce said on Shugart’s frequently changing roles. “If that’s what it takes to help the team win on Friday night or Saturday, that’s what we’re willing to do. If we have an opportunity to win that day in this conference, I don’t think we’ll look at tomorrow. I think we’ll try and get it done that day.”
Bullpen was one of the main questions the Longhorns had going into 2018. With some of the struggles they’ve had, it makes sense that Pierce has looked toward the best pitchers he has in his rotation to help close out a chunk of a week’s games.
A contributing factor to Kingham’s and Shugart’s late-game usage is the disappointing performances from juniors Beau Ridgeway and Josh Sawyer. Heading into this season, Sawyer’s return from injury placed him as the middle-relief man, while Ridgeway would occupy the closer/stopper role.
For some reason, it hasn’t totally clicked for both of them. In Ridgeway’s 13.1 innings of work, he’s given up 13 earned runs. Even a start in Fayetteville against Arkansas couldn’t get him on track. Opposing hitters have a .286 average against him, the second highest on the team of anyone with more than one appearance.
Sawyer has an opposing batting average of .200, but he still has an ERA of 3.55 in seven appearances.
After those two, it becomes even more guesswork.
Freshman Nico O’Donnell has shown promise as a pitcher, enough to where he has solidified himself as the Tuesday starter. He has yet to appear in relief.
Six pitchers with a minimum of four relief appearances have an ERA of over 3.50. Four of those six have ERAs over 5.00. After Ridgeway, the most used relievers have been sophomore Bryce Verplank, freshman Bryce Elder, and junior Andy McGuire. Their combined ERA is just under 5.00, and their combined WHIP is 1.38.
All these numbers go to show is that there is not a consistently reliable pitcher Pierce can call on in the right field bullpen, which has lead him to use Kingham and Shugart when available.
While these bullpen numbers aren’t spectacular they may come as a result of Texas’ very difficult preseason schedule, currently ranked as the seventh toughest in the nation. Texas is 13-9 (3-0, Big 12) in 2018. At the same mark one year ago Texas was 13-10 (0-3) after a less challenging schedule that included games at Stanford, but not the elite opponents like fourth ranked Arkansas and nineteenth ranked LSU at their own stadiums.
“Our kids are very confident playing quality teams,” Pierce said. “I think we’re more mature. Just look at the last couple of games we held on to a one run lead. We get a one run victory, but it’s just no panic. You’re starting to see that more and more. I just think that comes from more guys in our lineup that have been in those environments.”
This weekend, Oklahoma State comes to Austin for another Big 12 series. The Cowboys are 10-8-1 and open their Big 12 slate this weekend.
“Right now they’re .500,” Pierce said. “They played a solid schedule. It looks like they’re playing much better of late. I really don’t know yet. It looks like they’ve struggled with some of their guys on their staff. I just have got to get into it a little deeper.”
First pitch Friday is at 7 p.m.