NEW SEASON OPTIMISM
New year, new staff.
Following the relinquishing of duties of longtime head coach Augie Garrido, new head coach David Pierce is ready to lead the Longhorns into 2017. Gone are the days of bunting people over to play for just one run. Pierce is ready to make things happen offensively.
Following a 25-32 season in which the Longhorns failed to make the NCAA tournament, Garrido and the athletic department saw that a new direction was needed. Pierce enters with a roster returning many of its most important arms, and almost every big bat from last year.
Due to the limited amount of time the coaches get with the players, the first day of practice last Friday began a furious sprint to the season opener against Rice. The coaches worked with the players during fall-ball, but outside of those organized practices, only individual groups could work out.
“Honestly, the fall was very productive,” Pierce said. “When you come into this type of transition, there’s a lot of newness for the players. They’ve been great, receptive. We had a good idea of the type of players we were getting and they’ve been that and even more so, they’ve been good with work ethic and very productive on the field.”
The new season optimism even made its way to the skipper.
“It’s a new beginning for us,” Pierce said. “The kids are ready. Really excited and I think they’re hungry.”
Pierce will be aided by his three main assistants, Sean Miller, Phillip Miller and Phil Haig. Whereas Garrido would send his pitching coach to the mound in order to make changes, Pierce said he would be the one traveling to the mound to make any hooks.
In a similar fashion to football, one of the biggest challenges of the off-season is instillation. New signals, defensive calls and mindsets have to be spread throughout the proud Longhorn baseball program.
“We have three weeks before we open up,” Pierce said. “We really want to focus on getting all of our information in, our calls, our coverages, and then have the ability to execute that weekly. Then, just getting our arms ready to go. We still have some question marks because of some competition at a lot of positions right now, so I think for me, it’s going to be how guys respond to the competition and the live at-bats and live innings more than anything.”
One of Pierce’s senior leaders, Kacy Clemens, touched on the new offensive way of thinking Pierce’s staff has brought to Texas.
“Something that I noticed is that we were scrimmaging in the fall and there were two outs and nobody on base and I had a 3-0 count in the box,” Clemens said. “I look down at Coach Allen and I was waiting for the take sign and I sat there and I waited. I wasn’t getting in the box until he gave it to me because I knew I was going to get it and he went like this ‘Hit it. Hit the ball.’ So now, that’s kind of the mindset. We’re getting in the box. We’re here to rake. We’re not afraid of anybody. There’s no more playing for one run. We’re playing to score every single inning.”
Following the disappointment of the past few seasons, the tone from several players made it seem as if even they knew, despite the legendary career of Garrido, it was time for a change to come to Texas baseball.
“I think having a new atmosphere this year, it’ll be a lot less pressure,” senior Zane Gurwitz said. “We’re really excited about this season just with all the changes that we have. There’s just a lot of great feeling in the locker room, on the field. Everyone’s just really excited to start the season.”
Cooper was a little less veiled in saying the team needed change.
“I think the seniors as a whole, we’ve kind of all got tired of what’s happened in the past couple years,” Cooper said. “I think that’s kind of made all of us enter into a leadership role. The senior class, we went to the World Series our freshman year.”
Losing can take a massive toll on a program, and even more so when a program is used to winning. Texas’ big three sports all have been through some down years recently, and so the pressure on the players to win only builds up more and more.
Clemens made it clear he knew losing as much as they did meant a little more at Texas, and that is part of what is driving him and his teammates to win more and win now.
“I think the toughest thing is when you lose around here, it’s a big deal,” Clemens said. “You can lose at other schools and it’d be normal, but here it doesn’t happen. There’s a reason why we represent this Longhorn on our chest and it’s because we come here, we’re the best in the country and we come here to win and that hasn’t happened.”
Rather than press themselves to win for their new coach, Clemens says they are taking everything with a more relaxed attitude, though they are ready for the season to get here.
“I think we’re not putting pressure on ourselves for that at all,” Clemens said. “I think we’re excited. I think we’re excited to bring happiness to Austin with this baseball season for sure. It’s going to be fun and I think we’re going to win a lot of ballgames.”
The parallels to the Longhorn football program continue across I-35. Tom Herman entered in and said each position is up for grabs. Pierce said almost the same thing, except for one important spot, with Cooper being penciled in as the Friday night starter.
For the remaining three rotation spots, Pierce said he had five to six guys competing, including a freshman in Blair Henley. Other competitors with a good chance to get a rotation spot include juniors Connor Mayes, Josh Sawyer and Kyle Johnston.
Clemens will be tough to top at first base, while his younger brother, Kody, can play at multiple infield positions, however he maybe limited to a DH role due to his Tommy John surgery in August. Shortstop has junior Bret Boswell as the likely candidate, but other competitors include Joe Baker, Andrew Sosa and Jake McKenzie. Freshman Ryan Reynolds, son of Shane Reynolds, looks to be a competitor at third base.
In the outfield, Gurwitz should have a spot, just which spot is yet to be determined. Junior Patrick Mathis should be a leader for right field, while others like Austin Todd, Travis Jones and Tyler Rand are competing for that last outfield spot.
Behind the plate, junior Michael Cantu is the default choice. His arm and defense are high level, but his bat needs to come around to make up for the departure of Tres Barrera. Behind him are sophomores Michael McCann and George Pappas.
With most of the field being open to competition, Pierce is using this as an opportunity to see what the roster he inherited has.
“We’re probably set at maybe three position players right now,” Pierce said. “It’s a good thing because we have two to three guys that have depth and they offer different things. We want to really overview that and see who’s the best guy. I like to say once you earn that job to start, you have the opportunity to fail. Once a guy becomes that starter, he’s going to have an opportunity to play.”
Although seniors may not want to fight for a job they might think is theirs, Gurwitz is encouraged by the process.
“It creates a good atmosphere because yes, everyone is kind of competing for a spot again, but it brings up the intensity,” Gurwitz said. “It makes other players better because no one has a set position. Everybody has got to compete for one and prove themselves to a new coaching staff. It just elevates the game and the competition.”
Boswell thought the same, but even he was not clear on who had their spot down. He delivered the following quote prior to Pierce saying “maybe three” positions were set.
“I think we’ve got one spot that’s set and I think everything else is still up in the air,” Boswell said, referencing Cooper. “Really nobody knows anything at this point. Everybody’s battling for every spot and everything is pretty much wide open right now. I think the Friday night starter is the one spot that’s everybody knows.”
PLENTY OF LEADERSHIP
In the past few years, Texas’ most successful run came in 2014 when the Longhorns reached the national semifinals in Omaha. Though it seems like a long time ago, six players from this year’s team made the trip to Nebraska thanks to a hot, late season run.
Redshirt juniors Bret Boswell, Josh Sawyer and Morgan Cooper and seniors Jon Malmin, Kacy Clemens and Zane Gurwitz all will play important leadership positions for Pierce’s first season at Texas. When a coach comes in and changes the culture, the buy in is important. Pierce has made sure to go to his leaders early in his Texas career.
“We actually have a very large group of juniors and our seniors, I think we have five or six of them that do have some experience,” Pierce said. “With Kacy Clemens, Bret Boswell, who is a redshirt junior, Morgan Cooper, Zane Gurwitz – those guys have been everything you expect out of senior leadership. The leaning on them, that’s something they have to create with the younger guys. That’s not something I push. That’s something that has to innate within them.”
Cooper knows he will probably be looked at for leadership, but he prefers to let his play do the talking rather than his mouth.
“We know what it’s like,” Cooper said about making it to the College World Series. “We know what it takes but we’ve got to find a way to show the younger guys this is how we do it and use that however the best we can.”
The culture of the team starts at the top with Pierce, but it is dispersed through the leaders of the team. While last year was full of players trying to win for the legendary coach, this year it looks like the players are trying to win for Texas.
“I think having a new atmosphere this year, it’ll be a lot less pressure,” Gurwitz said. “We’re really excited about this season, just with all the changes that we have. There’s just a lot of great feeling in the locker room, on the field. Everyone’s just really excited to start the season.”
When asked specifically if he thought this season’s team could make it back to Omaha, Gurwitz said there was a very good possibility.
“I really do,” Gurwitz said. “I think our pitching staff can be incredible this year and I think we have great hitting, great leadership to lead the way. If everything comes together like we hope it does, I think we should have just as good of a chance as anyone else.”
During the off-season, several major changes were made to UFCU Disch-Falk Field. Many of the changes, like moving the outfield fences in, were years in the making.
In left field, the distance remains 340 feet, but the chain link fence to shield players in the visitor’s bullpen is no more. For the length of the bullpen in left field, the fence sits about waist-high, which should make for some more home runs and highlight plays.
“That’s a little interesting new piece of the program that’s definitely going to cause a different kind of play,” Pierce said. “And I think you’ll find that with the fence, it’s not just about the home run. It’s about creating more balance in a game, but now the fence becomes part of the play where outfielders are going to have to make some decisions because the wall is still 10-foot.”
Texas also installed new turf at the Disch. While many fans clamor for natural grass to grace the five-time national champion’s home field, that will likely not come due to increased maintenance costs and the continual wear and tear a college baseball field sees from both organized activities and prospect camps. According to Pierce, the team has welcomed the new changes.
“Oh it’s been great,” Pierce said about the new field. “I think the kids are exciting about it. The turf is playing a little slower than we want. We have some work to do on that which is kind of a work in progress. I’m so glad we were able to get the fences in and if you look at them, you can’t really tell until you step in the box.”
Additional changes include bringing the left-center fence in to 370 feet, and the right-center fence in to 365 feet. Right field remains unchanged.
The changes requested by Pierce are partially due to the fact his offensive philosophy differs drastically from the previous coaching staff’s. While the bunt will be a part of his offense, it will be a complimentary fixture as it is on most ball clubs. With his team swinging more, Pierce saw the need to bring in the fences. The timing surprised some.
“I didn’t know that they were going to come in this year,” Gurwitz said. “I was told it was going to be next year or the year after, so I’m glad I’ll at least get one year of it and see if it makes that big of a difference. It’s still a big field and I’m excited to see what happens.”
The offense will be much different, but so will the way the park plays. Tres Barrera, currently in the Nationals’ system, recorded several triples last season. Barrera does not possess the best foot speed, but that speaks to the distance to the fences last season. The most exciting play in baseball was not terribly exciting at the Disch.
Since the stadium will play closer to how most parks play, triples will be more exciting, and therefore harder to come by. The defensive style will change, and the offensive numbers will as well. It’s been a learning process for the team, but it’s a change everyone familiar with the Disch will have to make.
“I think it changes the mindset of a few people,” Clemens said. “We joke with the pitchers about it saying we’ve got a little more of a chance now. But yeah, this field is normally a graveyard. It still is a big yard, don’t get me wrong.”
The changes will help outfielders some, but also hurt pitchers.
“Outfielders are going to be able to range more, but on the flip side of that, more balls are going to go out,” Clemens said. “We’ll see what happens.”