After visiting Omaha in 2014 and reaching the national semifinals, 2015 was supposed to be another banner year for the Texas Longhorns baseball program. While the team began strong out of the gate, a midseason non-conference sweep at the hands of Nebraska proved to be a major turning point in the season. The team stumbled into the Big 12 Tournament, needing to win in Oklahoma City to even have a chance at the field of 64.
Luckily for the Horns, they won in Oklahoma City, winning the Big 12 Championship and getting into the NCAAs. The appearance would be brief as Texas was eliminated quickly, losing both its games.
With last season behind the team, 2016 is an important year, and a year in which the product on the field will match what most Texas fans are familiar with; bunting, the hit-and-run, and stolen bases. Texas head coach Augie Garrido said that this team went through some alterations in the offseason to better set themselves up for another trip to Omaha.
“To win the national championship I think the changes have been made,” Garrido said. “It’s about teamwork. You have to have the best team, not necessarily the best players at this level because all of the teams make so many mistakes. I think we have the pitching and the defense and we’re doing a much better job of scoring runs, which has been the hardest thing for us.”
Throughout the availability, both Garrido and his players, including junior catcher Tres Barrera, repeated the phrase “change of mentality.” Barrera stressed how it took leadership to make sure the rest of the team was dedicated to the goal shared by all college baseball teams.
“We know how good we are,” Barrera said. “We know how good we can be. We just have to go out there and do whatever it takes to win.”
Garrido called Barrera his “No. 1 leader” for the team. The aforementioned “change of mentality” had a lot to do with making sure the team became more of a cohesive unit, something that Garrido thinks happened over the course of fall practice.
“I think that they’re closer and that their attitude is better,” Garrido said. “Mentality and attitude are pretty interchangeable. They’re doing what’s right and making good decisions.”
On offense, Garrido said that he plans for this team to be similar to the world champion Kansas City Royals. He expects this team to hit the fastball, be aggressive on the bases and make solid contact. Garrido will also continue to use his small-ball offense that he has employed over most his UT career after getting away from it some last year. Junior first baseman Kacy Clemens said that this is what the team will do in order to try and win games.
“Of course we’re going to bunt the ball,” Clemens said. “It’s part of our game and strategy. There are a lot of things that can happen on bunts that many people don’t understand.”
Garrido’s weekend rotation is made up of sophomore Kyle Johnston, senior Ty Culbreth, and sophomore Connor Mayes. With multiple four-game series on the schedule to begin the year, junior Josh Sawyer and sophomore Morgan Cooper also could be a part of the weekend rotation, and according to Garrido, has touched 91-92 mph in competitive scrimmages. The closing responsibilities for the Longhorns belong to true freshman Chase Shugart.
Johnston, now entering his second season, saw his game improve over the course of last season and knows that he can succeed in the number one role.
“Coach deciding to give it to me shows that he trusts me and I get a chance to prove myself on the mound and see what I bring to the table,” Johnston said. “As the year went on [last year], with more and more appearances, getting the chance to throw in the Big 12 Championship game and the regional, it shows how much better my stuff got throughout the year and how much more confidence I was able to gain.”
Garrido’s lineup has a mix of age classes:
CF – Zane Gurwitz – JR
SS – Bret Boswell – SO
RF – Patrick Mathis – SO
C – Tres Barrera -JR
DH – Michael Cantu – SO
1B – Kacy Clemens – JR
3B – Kody Clemens – FR
2B – Jake McKenzie – SO
LF – Tyler Rand – FR
Garrido said that sophomore Joe Baker, who started much of last season in the middle infield, is currently nursing a leg injury and will likely be unavailable for the opening series.
Barrera, now an upperclassmen, understands the leadership responsibilities he now has.
“As an older guy, you want to get everyone pulling in the right direction and get the team to where it wants to be,” Barrera said.“Once we have everybody pulling in the right direction, the sky is the limit for this team.”
Clemens echoed the same sentiment.
“Now that I’m a junior, it’s flown by,” Clemens said. “I really understand what they say. We’re going to try and get the most out of this year for sure.”
Texas begins the 2016 campaign against UNLV this Friday. Included on this year’s schedule are Stanford, California, UCLA and Tulane. Texas makes midweek trips to Texas State, University of Houston, and Big 12 rival Texas A&M as well.