Texas baseball is here again and with the Horns ranked No. 1 by every major poll and returning most of their weapons from a team that lost in the finals of the college world series, this year the expectations are very clear: National Championship or bust.
Texas hasn’t had this much hype since 2005…and we’re not talking about football.
That was also the last season the Horns won a national championship in baseball and expectations are equally high for 2010. A major part of those expectations is the return of so many key players from a team that was one game away from a championship last season, because of which the Horns find themselves at the top of the USA Today/ESPN College Baseball Poll and the Baseball America Poll.
At this point, a conference championship is beyond the point of a given, at least in the minds of the preseason prognosticators. Of course, that’s not unusual given that the Horns own more than 75 conference championships and are typically the league favorite heading into the season. However, that expectation is even stronger this year since the Longhorns are not only No. 1 but the only Big 12 team ranked in the Top 25 of either of the aforementioned polls.
Whether or not this idea of a straight shot to Omaha plays out remains to be seen, but if you’d like to forget the troubles of Pasadena or the frustrations at the Drum, this is the year to keep an eye on the Texas baseball team.
But who comprises this supposed championship squad?
At the Plate
Projected lineup (2009 statistics):
1. Brandon Loy; Soph. (.288, 30 RBI, 34 R, 27 BB)
2. Jordan Etier; Soph. (.267, 2 RBI, 6 R, 1 BB)
3. Kevin Keyes; Jr. (.305, 46 RBI, 46 R, 9 HR, 31 BB)
4. Russell Moldenhaur; Sr. (.262, 14 RBI, 10 R, 4 HR, 17 BB)
5. Cameron Rupp; Jr. (.292, 46 RBI, 46 R, 11 HR, 31 BB)
6. Conner Rowe; Jr. (.277, 40 RBI, 33 R, 8 HR, 14 BB)
7. Tant Shepherd; Jr. (.260, 21 RBI, 27 R, 2 HR, 19 BB)
8. Kevin Lusson; Soph. (.310, 11 RBI, 13 R, 15 BB)
9. Kyle Lusson; Sr. (.170, 3 RBI, 7 R, 6 BB)
Get ready for Augie-ball.
Leading off for Texas is Brandon Loy, who led the nation in sacrifice bunts last season with 25. He was also the only Longhorn to play in all 67 of Texas’ games last season and he did so as a freshman. Whether Loy steps up his game even further goes through a sophomore slump will go a long way towards determining the Longhorns’ success (more on that under “In the Field”).
Expected to follow Loy is another sophomore that coaches are expecting to have a breakout season: Jordan Etier. Most Longhorn fans haven’t heard his name, given that he only participated in 15 games last season, but he’ll get a shot early to prove he not only belongs in the lineup but in a very high position.
That will also depend on his ability to bunt, since he should precede a proven power commodity in junior Kevin Keyes. Keyes did lead the team in strikeouts last season with 55, but he also tied for the team lead in RBI (46) and tied for second in runs (46). He should have a great deal of confidence coming off the College World Series and will be a major power threat for Texas.
As will the expected DH and clean-up hitter, Russell Moldenhaur. He only started 26 games last season, but was one of three Longhorns to make the College World Series All Tournament Team. Expect his total of homeruns to be a lot higher than four this coming season. Texas also returns last year’s team leader in homeruns, Cameron Rupp, and he should be right behind Moldenhaur in the lineup. With junior Connor Rowe following right behind him, the Longhorns find themselves with some serious power in the 3-6 spots. The middle of the lineup may shift around a bit (Rupp may move into the clean-up spot, Keyes may move back to five, etc.), but regardless of the arrangement, there will be some balls flying out of the yard at the Disch – as difficult as it is to hit homeruns there.
In the bottom of the lineup should be Tant Shepherd followed by the Lusson Brothers. Shepherd could be moved around a bit and despite his relatively low batting average of .260 last season he was a productive player for the Horns. Kevin and Kyle Lusson are known more for their defensive prowess than for their offense and only starting a collective total of 20 games last season have a great deal to prove.
It should also be noted that the two players just off the list are sophomore outfielder Tim Maitland and freshman pitcher/outfielder Cohl Walla, who each should push Kyle Lusson for the final spot in the lineup and the start in left field.
In the Field
C – Cameron Rupp
1B – Tant Shepherd
2B – Jordan Etier
SS – Brandon Loy
3B – Kevin Lusson
LF – Kyle Lusson
CF – Connor Rowe
RF – Kevin Keyes
The lynchpin of the Texas defense is going to be Loy. The Longhorns spent the first part of the 2009 season looking for a shortstop and they found it when they put a true freshman in that spot. Loy is a quality shortstop and with what appears right now to be a lack of depth in the infield (though solid starters), he’ll have to be quality.
That’s expected, though, as fielding should be a strong suit overall for this team. The only relative surprise is coach Augie Garrido mentioning that Shepherd will probably play at first base. Garrido had been experimenting with putting Keyes at first, but he’ll spend most of his time in right.
On the Mound
Friday Starter – Taylor Jungmann; Soph. (11-3, 2.00 ERA)
Saturday Starter – Brandon Workman; Jr. (3-5, 3.48 ERA)
Sunday Stater – Austin Dicharry; Soph. (8-2, 2.28 ERA)
Closer – Chance Ruffin; Jr. (10-2, 3.32 ERA)
Texas returns plenty of bats to the lineup, but the main reason this team is ranked No. 1 heading into the 2010 season is what the Longhorns return on the mound.
The Horns’ head coach certainly believes he’s got a set of winners.
Earlier this month Garrido said the pitching staff is his best in all of his 42 years of coaching baseball. That’s tall praise from the sport’s winningest coach.
It’s also justifiable praise. Except for Austin Wood, each of the Horns’ top pitchers return. The biggest change is who will be replacing Wood in the closer role: Chance Ruffin.
Ruffin was the team’s top starter last season, but the more we look at it, the more the closer role appears to fit him like a glove. Ruffin is an aggressive pitcher known for his fastball and breaking pitch. He should save plenty of games this season and it could be a preview of his eventual role as a professional.
Moving into the top spot in the rotation is a player who by the end of the season probably was the Horns’ top pitcher: Taylor Jungmann.
Texas gets things started Friday afternoon with a three-game weekend series against New Mexico, a team the Horns have never met on the baseball diamond. The Lobos did not make the NCAA Championship field last season but did finish with a solid 37-20 record overall and 15-8 in Mountain West play.
First pitch Friday is set for 3:00 p.m. at the Disch. Saturday’s game is set for 2:00 p.m. and Sunday’s will be at 1:00 p.m.