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AUSTIN — In the early stages of the season, Texas head coach David Pierce and his players have repeated the benefit of playing a difficult non-conference schedule.
They know while the games present a high risk of defeat, they also help prepare a growing Longhorns team for the quality of opponent they plan to see in the postseason. Top 10 Stanford, who visits Austin for a four-game series beginning Thursday, might be the most difficult of those non-conference tests.
The Cardinal rank anywhere between 5th and 7th in the major collegiate baseball polls. They’re off to a blistering start having taken series against Cal State-Fullerton, Michigan, and Rice with only one loss to their name.
Stanford is going through its first season without Mark Marquess at the helm in more than 40 years. Though there was a change at the top with alum David Esquer, Stanford’s quality of play has not seen a drop-off.
“They always have good pitching,” junior Kody Clemens said Wednesday. “They definitely don’t make many mistakes on the field. They’re all really smart guys. I don’t think they make many mistakes in any aspect of the game.”
Clemens is right in his estimation of the staff. Right-hander Tristan Beck, who is coming off a two-hit shutout, leads a pitching staff with an ERA of just 2.08. Opponents are hitting less than .200 against them through 12 games.
Pierce knows the team will see the Stanford pitching staff as one of the main obstacles the Longhorns will have to overcome to be successful. However, he wants to make sure Texas still plays its own game instead of Stanford’s.
“Their first three are really tough, but I think for us it’s about us and about us playing solid defense, and really not trying to match their velocity or match their breaking balls but to be ourselves,” Pierce said. “It’s going to be an interesting matchup when you go Nico O’Donnell, the true freshman, against Tristan Beck, the future first-rounder probably. It’s an interesting challenge for us.”
After O’Donnell, Pierce will go with junior Nolan Kingham on Friday followed by sophomore Blair Henley on Saturday. Junior Chase Shugart will throw Sunday and Pierce mentioned he could be available to pitch in relief on Thursday as well.
Stanford will throw lefty Kris Bubic (2-0, 1.56 ERA) on Friday then another lefty on Saturday in Erik Miller (0-1, 4.22). The Cardinal have yet to announce a Sunday starter.
After an offensive explosion the weekend prior against Northwestern, Texas knows they won’t have the same amount of opportunity against Stanford that the Wildcats offered.
“They know that they’re going to have a little less room for error against a team like Stanford,” Pierce said. “You may get one pitch in the at bat that you can really drive versus potentially three. You’ve got to be good with that one.”
On limiting the Stanford bats, Pierce laid out what he and assistant coach Phil Haig want to see from the staff.
“I really want to see them pitch ahead in the count and keep the ball down and when we go up, it’s because that’s our intent,” Pierce said. “They’ve got some low-ball hitters and so I think it’s good for us if we can pitch above their swings when it’s called for. We’ve got to pitch ahead and we’ve got to make them earn it and play great defense behind them.”
Stanford marks the beginning of what is likely the toughest six-game stretch of the Longhorns’ season. After completing the four-game set in Austin, Texas will travel to Fayetteville to face another highly-ranked squad in Arkansas.
Winning is always the goal, but outside of win-loss results in non-conference, Pierce said he wanted to see his staff repeat quality pitches, manage the opponent’s running game better, continue to make routine plays and make accurate throws, and have his batters hit to their strengths.
No matter the competition, the team still has to develop before conference play starts. “We’re having to grow no matter who we play,” Pierce said.
It’s something his players know as well.
“I think we need to see what we can do with these types of teams, see what we can put out on the field against this amazing competition,” Clemens said. “Obviously, that will work out for us in the future. I’m sure we’ll have some sort of a regional environment this weekend and also at Arkansas for the mid-week games. It’ll be a test for us and we’re looking forward to it.”