Baseball

A few baseball thoughts and observations

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David Pierce’s Texas Longhorns have played 33 of the 56 games on the 2021 schedule, including half of the Big 12 slate. The Longhorns have taken all four of the conference series they’ve played thus far with wins over Baylor and Oklahoma and sweeps of Kansas and Kansas State.

Texas (25-8, 10-2 Big 12) has won eight consecutive games and finds itself on the doorstep of the top spot in several college baseball rankings. D1Baseball.com ranked Texas No. 3, Collegiate Baseball called the Longhorns the No. 3 team in the country, and Baseball America placed UT at No. 4.

No. 3 isn’t the ceiling for Texas’ rankings as Perfect Game placed the Longhorns at No. 2 in its most recent rankings.

The mid-April collection of wins leading to lofty rankings and ever-improving records are part of a stream of positive data points for Pierce’s program. Since a shutout loss against Texas A&M on March 30, the Longhorns haven’t lost and have won games with complete performances in all facets of the game.

UT will play five non-conference games this week due to the Big 12 having an odd number of baseball programs, welcoming Nevada for a double-midweek before Abilene Christian heads to Austin for a three-game set.

The midpoint of Big 12 play is the right time for several observations including…

How about that Ivan Melendez? He helped solidify the lineup

Ivan Melendez has been one of the best hitters in the nation during Texas’ eight-game winning streak since the beginning of April, including homering in each of the last six games.

Melendez’s stats over that stretch are absurd: 18-for-31, 18 RBI, 7 HR, 4 BB, 7 K. Those numbers mean he’s reaching base 65 percent of the time in April. For the season, Melendez is slashing .375/.451/.739 (AVG/OBP/SLG) and has become the everyday designated hitter.

In April alone, his marks are borderline obscene: .581/.649/1.419. That’s no typo, his slugging percentage is over 1.000

The individual successes of Melendez are impressive. He also is smashing the baseball. Some of the shots he has sent out of UFCU Disch-Falk Field are some of the farthest hit in a long, long time. This one almost made the Texas Tennis Center.

This one cleared the center field batter’s eye, which is even taller now than it was when Cameron Rupp cleared straightaway center in 2010.

Melendez gets results at the plate, but he also knows how to enjoy himself during the process of hitting homers to the top of the left field scoreboard, too.

A slew of nicknames have been made for the El Paso product, from Hispanic Titanic to Latino Bambino. No matter what, Melendez has hit and hit well during the month of April.

With Melendez taking firm grasp of the designated hitter spot, Pierce likely has found the everyday lineup combination to ride the rest of the way for series against TCU, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State. Those teams join Texas to make up the top half of the Big 12 and in the top 15 of D1Baseball.com’s top 25.

Maybe they are this good?

Entering April, I was skeptical of some of the polls that placed Texas within the top five. To my eye, I saw a team that was a safe regional host (top 16) but contending to be a national seed (top eight).

Now almost two weeks later, I’ve got to admit that maybe the ranking services were on to something. Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma are not much of a murderer’s row, all are sub .500 in conference play and rank outside of the top 60 in RPI.

But Texas took care of business and often looked pretty good doing it. The last week has been another level, with dominant sweeps of the Wildcats and the Jayhawks. During the current win streak, the Longhorns have scored nine or more runs in six of eight games.

Some of the questions I had about their original lofty ranking had to do with the lineup. As mentioned, that’s been solidified with roles, spots, and responsibilities established for the rest of the way.

The remaining question I had, considering the respectable defense, was what the staff looked like outside of Ty Madden. Was Tristan Stevens going to hold on to the second starter spot?

Well, take a look at his last few outings and see if that’s someone you want to take out off Saturdays.

Five straight starts with six innings or more, no more than four runs in any outing, and two straight starts with no walks has Texas’ 1-2 punch looking effective. So lets move onto No. 3, Kolby Kubichek.

Outside of a poor outing versus Baylor, Kubichek has pitched well in his last few starts including the loss he suffered versus Oklahoma. A career-high seven innings against K-State on Sunday kept the successful starting pitching train rolling into another five game week.

Pete Hansen had settled in as the No. 4 starter who takes the bump during midweek games, but he found his way into a weekend game on Sunday. Balancing his workload is important, and so are taking care of Tuesday games, but Hansen’s services are far more valuable against Oklahoma State than Texas State.

That’s a pretty good top line to go with the surging hitting. The defense mixes spectacular with lapses but for the most part is doing more to help Texas win than to cost it games.

Three phases of the game, three plus aspects. Top three rankings. It all makes sense!

One thing on my mindregarding this team

The only members of the everyday lineup who have completed a full season of college baseball at Texas are Zach Zubia and Eric Kennedy. Mike Antico and Cam Williams have completed D1 seasons but at other institutions. Silas Ardoin, Trey Faltine, and Douglas Hodo III are in their second season in Austin but had their freshman year cut short by the pandemic.

True freshman Mitchell Daly is going through all this for the first time. With that in mind, I’m very curious to see what happens to this team during its toughest and most important stretch of the season.

This isn’t to doubt them or their ability to navigate Big 12 play, but the remaining conference series will be a test in multiple senses. Are they able to match up with teams that may have more experience? Are they doing the right things outside of gamedays to make sure they can go through the upcoming grind?

Signs point to the answers to both of those questions being yes, but those answers should be written in pencil and not in ink. It is my biggest question remaining about the 2021 Longhorns, and how they determine the answer should lead to an exciting finish to the season.