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When Texas’ 2020 baseball season was cut short at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it robbed Longhorns head coach David Pierce of the opportunity to find out just how good a team he professed his love for was.
It was a brutal beat not only for Pierce, but for the program. The 2020 campaign, like most baseball seasons, started with unbounded optimism that Texas would improve upon a 27-27 2019 season without any postseason baseball. Talented pitching, an experienced outfield, and the influence of former MLB All-Star Troy Tulowitzki had Pierce and Texas fans excited for the 2020 season to play out.
UT’s early play made that optimism last into March. The team had its struggles, including losses to two SEC teams in Houston, but the hope remained. Staff ace Bryce Elder was pitching his way into the early rounds of the MLB Draft. Ty Madden was finding a groove with personal catcher Silas Ardoin. Impressive freshman Pete Hansen was about to step into the No. 3 role.
Then, it disappeared with a NCAA press release and the cancellation of the season. Almost a year later, nearly everyone who was on the 2020 Longhorn squad is back for the 2021 season. The No. 9 preseason ranking carries lofty expectations. Those are the norm at Texas.
Why not expect big things from this team? The three biggest departures from the 2020 team in Elder (Atlanta Braves), Duke Ellis (Chicago White Sox), and Kamron Fields (Texas Southern) may have been replaced by upgrades. Madden is already fielding major preseason buzz. St. John’s transfer Mike Antico is primed for a big season in center field. Texas’ pitching depth, a strength of the team, can mitigate the loss of the experienced Fields.
Add the returning experience of Austin Todd, Zach Zubia, Eric Kennedy, DJ Petrinsky, Silas Ardoin, Trey Faltine, plus much of the core of the 2020 squad, and big things should be expected for the 2021 Longhorns. Battles for prominent roles remain, including for starting pitching roles, second base, and third base, but those are common issues teams must deal with season-to-season. And with recent recruiting combined with a truncated 2020 MLB Draft, there are good candidates for those position battles in several classifications.
All this lays before a massive season for Pierce. Though it appeared his team was on its way to washing the memory of 27-27 away, it lost its chance with the season’s cancellation. Optimism aside, it’s possible to point back to that .500 record and it will become easy to do so should Texas struggle at any point this year. A strong season in contention for the Big 12 title and hosting postseason baseball would make 2019 appear like a fluke. A weak season would make 2018’s run seem fluke-like when runs to Omaha shouldn’t be one-off events for a program with six national championships.
While the Longhorns are returning top tier talent, so too are other teams. Not just around the country, but in the Big 12. Texas Tech is ranked No. 3. TCU is No. 10. West Virginia and Oklahoma State are also in the D1Baseball top 25, and Oklahoma always fields a well-rounded team.
Pierce himself admitted in a late January press conference the single-digit preseason ranking is helpful for his program. He mentioned it puts good publicity in front of recruits’ eyes for several weeks before the season even begins.
But the real measure of Texas’ prowess is based on how it fares against top 15 programs like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas, or Big 12 foes Texas Tech, Oklahoma, TCU, and Oklahoma State.
Texas has been to about half of the College World Series the NCAA has overseen. After two years without a trip to Omaha, the program wants to get back there.
It has as good of a team it can ask for to accomplish that goal. It has the schedule necessary to test their ability. All that’s left to do is play ball.
Catcher: Silas Ardoin/DJ Petrinsky
First base: Zach Zubia
Second base: Cam Williams
Third base: Ivan Melendez
Shortstop: Trey Faltine
Left field: Eric Kennedy
Center field: Mike Antico
Right field: Austin Todd
While this is a lineup that will get a lot of innings this weekend, the battles for second base and third base still have a ways to go before being completely decided.
“We’re not concerned that we don’t have people that can play the positions,” Pierce said Tuesday. “The competition has been shortened so who has won the job is the question more so than do we have anyone to play third and second.”
Expect to see Cam Williams go back and forth between second and third, with one of Dylan Campbell or Murphy Stehly replacing him on the right side of the infield when Williams heads to the hot corner. Lance Ford also remains an option. Andre Duplantier Jr. is listed on the official roster, but he had elbow surgery late in the fall and will not be available to pitch this season.
Madden is the star of the show, but after last season’s surge it is surprising not to see Pete Hansen second on the weekend slate. On Tuesday, Pierce said that Hansen’s fall was interrupted due to contract tracing at several junctures.
Additionally, the weather in Texas over the past week resulted in the closure of UT athletic facilities. Texas hasn’t practiced together in several days, and Hansen was one of the players who could have used this week to build up his arm strength.
“We’ll want to make sure again that we bring him along at the right speed,” Pierce said Tuesday. That means an appearance from Hansen is unlikely this weekend.
Still, Texas has depth on the mound this season which will come in handy with the first 13 games in 18 days. Pierce believes it is a team strength. He’ll try to find regular contributors early in the season, as he does every season.
“I feel really comfortable about using multiple arms and not pushing anyone too deep into a game,” Pierce said. “I feel like our strength in our staff is numbers. We’ll utilize a lot of people going into the tournament and probably into next week.”
The Longhorns will find out if their numbers really are a strength against No. 7 Mississippi State, No. 8 Arkansas, and No. 6 Ole Miss. All three of these SEC teams expect to be playing for a chance to go to Omaha. They will be a true test of Texas’ mettle early in the season.