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Baseball: Stage Set For 2010 Title Run

Disastrous relief appearances. Costly mistakes in the field. Missed opportunities at the plate. No. 1 national seed but College World Series runner-up. Simply put, Texas could not overcome the hottest team in the country, the Cal State Fullerton Titans. Wait… Fullerton?
Yep, the year was 2004, and the normally nails All-American Huston Street struggled, several young Texas defenders made mistakes in the field, and the Longhorn bats went silent at critical times as the No. 1 national seed Horns lost to the streaking Titans.UT’s 2009 College World Series demise vs. red-hot LSU looked strikingly similar to the one in 2004. The difference is that the outcome against the Tigers is no real surprise for a team that, frankly, lived on the edge all season. This Texas team did not have a shutdown closer in the mold of Huston Street or the depth of middle relief that the ’04 squad enjoyed (including future closer J. Brent Cox). Austin Wood did an admirable job in the closer’s role and turned in a performance for the ages in the 25-inning affair vs. Boston College at the Disch in the Austin Regional. But Wood, particularly late in the year as his innings piled up (due to the lack of reliable middle relief), was unable to consistently close the door on opponents. And the Horns had a season-long LOB problem… too many runners left on base. When Texas left the bases loaded in the both the first and the third innings of the championship series finale vs. LSU, there was certainly disappointment but little shock from those that followed the team this season. Given that, it speaks volumes to the never-say-die attitude of the Longhorn players, instilled by head coach Augie Garrido, that Texas won both Big 12 titles, Regional and Super Regional titles, plus a bracket title and championship series appearance in Omaha. This team had a gutti-ness about it that, combined with the leadership of seniors Preston Clark, Travis Tucker and Austin Wood and even minor contributor Keith Shinaberry, allowed it to overcome its shortcomings and surpass the post-season accomplishments of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 squads, and match that of the 2004 team, arguably the best team in school history that did not win the CWS title. And make no mistake about the importance of the previous two weeks in Omaha – the comebacks vs. Southern Miss and, twice, vs. Arizona State and, yes, sending the finals series to a decisive third game after dropping the opener – in terms of setting the stage for the returning players for a championship run in 2010. While the seniors listed above (plus Michael Torres and junior MLB draftee Brandon Belt, who is expected to go pro) are gone, Texas returns its entire starting pitching rotation and CWS line-up regulars RF Kevin Keyes, SS Brandon Loy, DH Russell Moldenhauer, CF Connor Rowe and C Cameron Rupp. With Chance Ruffin, Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green, Austin Dicharry and Brandon Workman, pitching coach Skip Johnson will have an abundance of experienced right-handed arms. True freshman Jungmann turned in the two top pitching performances of the CWS for Texas (in shut-down relief vs. Arizona State and in a complete game win over the monster bats of LSU), which bodes well for future trips to Rosenblatt (or the new stadium in 2011). Johnson, though, needs to find a few lefties (probably from among returners Andrew McKirahan and Sam Stafford and true freshmen Colton Cain, if he doesn’t go pro, and Hoby Milner) and a closer (probably from among the righties listed above) if the Horns are to match or improve upon the outstanding overall performance from the staff in 2009. And while this Texas team managed national runner-up status despite a .288 season batting average and low power numbers and offensive efficiency, improvement in all those areas will give the Horns a bigger margin for error when the pitching falters. Texas found its long ball stroke in the hitter-friendly confines of Rosenblatt, hitting 14 homers in six games vs. just 38 in 60 games prior to Omaha, with Rupp blasting three to push his season total to 11. Moldenhauer, Keyes and Rowe also went yard, so there is power returning, it just needs to be more consistent throughout the year. More speed on the basepaths and in the outfield is also a must (see the multiple defensive plays that the Tigers made in the final series that robbed Texas of hits, while similar balls by LSU fell in for hits). Incoming freshmen Cohl Walla and Everett Williams, if he spurns pro ball, are two names to watch in that area. Garrido sees what’s on the horizon.“I honestly believe that this is the beginning of a new era for Texas baseball in Omaha.”

It’s disappointing that we’re not discussing the possibility of back-to-back titles. The Horns were maddeningly close. But just as 2004 disappointment spawned a 2005 championship, this team’s oh-so-close accomplishment sets up 2010 as a seventh special year in Longhorn baseball.