Stanford Preview: Mr. Sunken’s Diamond

Blair Henley (Will Gallagher/IT)

Blair Henley (Will Gallagher/IT)

David Pierce’s No. 12 Longhorn baseball team travels to Palo Alto, Calif. this weekend to face the No. 6 Stanford Cardinal. The Longhorns and Cardinal have matched up every year since 1998. Late Texas head coach Augie Garrido and former Stanford head coach Mark Marquess both played similar styles of ball, and with Garrido originally from Northern California, a series between the two programs was a perfect match.

The successors to those two coaches, Pierce and Stanford’s David Esquer, will continue the series although both utilize different styles of play than their prone to bunt predecessors. The Longhorns flew to California early Wednesday morning and worked out a Sunken Diamond to acclimate themselves to the stadium.

“They’re all a challenge right now, and that’s one of the toughest places that we go every single year,” Pierce said after Texas’ Tuesday win over UT-Rio Grande Valley. “We’re going to have to be good to do well out there.”

Texas hasn’t won a series against the Cardinal since 2014, including dropping three of four in Austin in 2018. However, Texas hasn’t had this type of momentum heading into a series at Stanford since 2009.

Last year’s series was determined by some of the same players who will play a major role this year. Sophomore Bryce Elder earned a win in relief last year and will get the ball Friday this week. Conversely, Stanford ace Brendan Beck returns too. Beck started the final game of the series last year, which Stanford won convincingly 11-1. Because of their yearly meeting and recent results, the Longhorns’ head coach knows his team needs to be prepared for a difficult challenge.

“It’s a very tough opponent,” Pierce said. “I want to see us go out there, play clean defense, and really attack the strike zone. If we do that, it gives us a chance to be very competitive.”

ABOUT THE DEFENSE
Traditionally, Texas is a program that prides itself on pitching and defense.

The pitching is there in 2019 with great weekend starts from Elder, dominant relief performances from freshman Cole Quintanilla, and promising appearances from other freshmen Ty Madden, Kolby Kubichek, Mason Bryant, and Owen Meaney.

The defense, however, has struggled. Texas currently sits outside of the top 200 in fielding percentage with a .957 mark, and is one of a few teams this season to commit at least 23 errors.

There are a few things that go into that number. Five Longhorn pitchers have one error, and all three starting outfielders have one error as well. The main source of Texas’ deflated defensive numbers is the left side of the infield.

Bryce Reagan (Will Gallahger/IT)

Bryce Reagan (Will Gallahger/IT)

Freshman shortstop Bryce Reagan has five errors on the year while junior third baseman Ryan Reynolds is second on the team with four. Reagan has recorded an error at least once in Texas’ three weekend series this year, while three of Reynolds’ four errors have come in the last week.

Reynolds has shown his ability to effectively play the hot corner throughout his first two years in Austin, and can likely be relied upon to improve his .905 fielding percentage. If Reagan can, however, is an unknown.

Reagan became Pierce’s guy at short due to junior David Hamilton’s season-ending Achilles injury he suffered before the first pitch of the year was thrown. Hamilton posted back-to-back .964 fielding percentage seasons, and played with incredible speed and range.

Range isn’t something Reagan is lacking, but so far he’s added fielding errors and throwing errors to his record. He remains a solid nine-hole guy with a .391 on-base percentage, but his defense has been an early season struggle.

With that in mind, Pierce has no plans to change things up on the left side of the infield at Stanford, particularly at shortstop.

“Bryce Reagan’s our starting shortstop right now,” Pierce said Wednesday. “He had a great session in BP today. Today was much more about catch your breath, clear your mind. He did a great job of coming off the bench, getting a big hit, and looked as good as he’s looked on one ground ball there in the ninth. That was reassuring to be honest with you.”

Defensive questions exist for Texas not just at short, but now at catcher. With the news that senior DJ Petrinsky will undergo shoulder surgery and try to play again next season on a medical hardship, Texas has just two catchers on the roster.

Petrinsky hadn’t seen much time behind the plate this year due to his nagging shoulder problems. Most of those starts have gone to Michael McCann, who is producing at or above his career best with slashes of .256/.396/.359. He’s also caught six of the 17 runners who have tried to steal a base against him.

McCann is a known quality. He’s likely not the same defensive catcher Petrinsky is, but still solid in his own right with a 1.000 fielding percentage as evidence.

The questions surrounding catcher revolve around freshman Caston Peter. Originally the team’s third catcher, he’s now one play away from being the starting catcher, and will now give McCann off days through the rest of the season.

Peter is o-for at the plate in the early portion of the season, and caught one of the two runners that tried to take a base against him. What Peter will be able to do for this team is unknown, but Texas’ catching situation isn’t ideal.

MATCHUP AT THE PLATE
Stanford returns several players that were on the Cardinal’s 2019 trip to Austin. Both team’s lineups look similar, with a few players near the top leading the way and others contributing in spots.

Catcher Maverick Handley, designated hitter Will Matthiessen, and left fielder Brandon Wulff are leading the way offensively for the Cardinal. Matthiessen, also a respectable pitcher, has started 2019 strong with a slash of .378/.489/.649 while adding 10 RBIs in 11 games.

His slugging numbers are only surpassed by Wulff. Five of Wulff’s 11 hits have been for extra bases, four of them home runs. Handley, the rare leadoff catcher, is getting on base 47 percent of the time.

That trio is part of a Stanford team that returned 95 percent of the home runs, 79 percent of the RBIs, and 74 percent of total bases from the 2018 Cardinal.

“Honestly, Stanford’s more of a conventional team,” Pierce said. “They hit a little bit more than most of the west coast guys do. They do a little less action than most west coast schools.”

Texas will have some experience facing the Cardinal, as junior Blair Henley will get a weekend start in Palo Alto. Henley has experience against Stanford, though not the kind he’d prefer.

In two career starts against Stanford, Henley is 0-2. He allowed five earned runs in his six-inning outing in 2018. In 2017, he fared much better though his offense couldn’t help him out. He pitched eight innings and allowed five hits and two earned runs in a 2-1 loss.

Henley knows what to expect from the Cardinal when it’s his turn to face them.

“They’ve always been a good team,” Henley said Wednesday. “I think this is my third year to throw against them. I’ve seen some of the same guys in the past. We’re going to do the same film that we do against every other team. We’re going to see the tendencies they have.”

On the Texas side, things aren’t too different. Juniors Duke Ellis, Austin Todd, Ryan Reynolds, and freshman Eric Kennedy are leading the way for the Longhorns, with the rest of the lineup contributing in spurts.

Todd sits behind Ellis and Kennedy in the lineup, and has reaped the benefits of the duo’s .446 average on-base percentage.

“Every time Duke and Eric get on ahead of you, you know you’re going to have a chance to do damage and you’re just waiting for a pitch,” Todd said. “It’s great having those two in front of you and getting on base like they are.”

Pierce lumped praise the junior at the top of the order, too.

“He’s really another guy that has confidence in the box,” Pierce said. “He’s seeing it well. He’s actually missing some pitches but he’s fighting them off to continue the at bat. He’s just got a lot of confidence, and when him and Eric (Kennedy) get on base, it’s electric.”

THE ARMS

Stanford and Texas are two programs synonymous with pitching. Mark Appel, Corey Knebel, Roger Clemens, and Mike Mussina are some of the premier names associated with both programs. The Cardinal and the Longhorns are similar programs, and both boast similar pitching quality.

While Texas has used seven freshman pitchers in 2019, Stanford has only used two. Two of those seven Longhorn freshmen will be in the weekend rotation.

Ty Madden will get the ball Thursday night before Friday-through-Sunday follows the normal order of Bryce Elder, Blair Henley, and freshman Coy Cobb.

Stanford will throw a group with similar experience in sophomore Brendan Beck, sophomore Jacob Palisch, freshman Alex Williams, and junior Eric Miller.

Williams has appeared as Stanford’s midweek guy, and will get the Saturday start. Miller remains in his normal Sunday spot in the rotation.

“When you look at the arms of LSU, power arms, they may be the best stuff right now,” Pierce said. “I think Stanford’s ahead of them right now as far as pitchability. They have some guys just pounding the strike zone.”

Opponents are hitting .221 against the experienced Cardinal staff. Texas saw Beck, Palisch, and Miller last year in Austin, so Texas know what its facing.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Todd said. “As a hitter, you want the best of the best coming at you and really test you. It’s great. I love the competition.”

Austin Todd (Will Gallagher/IT)

Austin Todd (Will Gallagher/IT)

The five freshmen not in the rotation will likely be called on in relief.

So far, those freshmen have lived up to the excitement they generated when they signed and showed up on campus. It’s even having an effect on some of the older members of the staff.

“We have everyone that can go out there, do a job, and shove,” Henley said. “We’ve seen it. That first week we threw sixteen guys and they all did well. It’s good to know everyone in the bullpen can come out and give us a zero.”

Texas is already in Palo Alto, and the weather isn’t too much of an improvement over the current climate in Austin. “Sounds like sleeve weather to me,” Todd noted.

Their matchup with a similarly talented opponent should give Pierce all the information he needs before Big 12 play starts the following week with a leading conference contender, Texas Tech.