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David Pierce’s first season as the head coach of the Texas Longhorn baseball program was one of change. Gone was Augie Garrido, a two-time national champion at Texas and college baseball’s winningest coach. Departing with him was his culture and offensive style, where he’d bunt even the best hitters.
The change led Texas (No. 21, D1Baseball.com) to a place of familiarity in the NCAA tournament. Though not hosting like they would have hoped, the Longhorns were a game away from the final sixteen before losing two tough games to Long Beach State on their turf.
The offseason was also a period of change as 11 Longhorns, including team leaders Kacy Clemens and Morgan Cooper, were drafted and set their sights on beginning their professional career.
With the roster turnover, Pierce and his assistant staff of Sean Allen, Philip Miller and Phil Haig needed to fill those spots, reaching into the junior college and high school ranks to round out his roster. Though the roster may appear divided with clear lines between returners and newcomers, Pierce said the team has acted as one unit throughout the entire offseason.
“I really and truly think that this fall is the best fall I’ve ever had with the team,” Pierce said on Friday. “We had so many moving parts. I credit that to our returnees. The kids coming back are kind of on a mission, and they’ve had great leadership and done it by example. Our new kids have just jumped right in.”
Pierce said 18 players came back to play for the Longhorns while 21 new players joined the fold. The turnover means there are vacant spots left by the juniors and seniors that declared for the draft. Several spots are open, and Pierce said the offseason was one of the more competitive ones he’s experienced as a coach.
“It’s definitely a new team,” Pierce said. “I thought our September work and offseason was awesome, then into our competition in October, it carried over. We tried to create a little bit more competition, and it’s carried over.”
One thing each of the three revenue sports at Texas has done extremely well in the past few years is to make sure each schedule has a good balance of winnable games and difficult matchups in the non-conference. In addition, the quality of the Big 12 has gone up across the board, keeping each Texas team’s strength of schedule near the top of the country.
Baseball in 2018 is no different, as the Longhorns will play eight teams ranked in the top 25 of D1Baseball.com’s preseason poll. Texas will travel to Baton Rouge to play No. 16 LSU at the end of February, then host No. 13 Stanford for a four-game set in early March. Immediately following the series with the Cardinal, the Longhorns hit the road for a two game, midweek matchup against the No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks.
Following the trip to Fayetteville, conference play will open up. Texas will have to travel to play No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 22 West Virginia, but will get No. 7 TCU at home.
The midweek toward the end of the season has several high profile SWC matchups. The No. 24 Houston Cougars travel to Austin in late April, but the biggest SWC rivalry takes place two weeks prior. The Longhorns and the No. 10 Texas A&M Aggies will square off in a Tuesday matchup in College Station. The longtime rivals have played each of the last two seasons with each team winning on its own turf.
In addition, this list doesn’t even include matchups against good Louisiana-Lafayette, Baylor, and Oklahoma teams.
For Pierce, success this year almost guarantees a top postseason position.
“If we do well in the schedule, we’ll host a regional by the schedule itself,” Pierce said. “It’s a very tough schedule, but at the same time, it challenges us early.”
Some of the ballparks the Longhorns will play in, LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, A&M’s Blue Bell Park, Arkansas’ Baum Field, and Texas Tech’s Dan Law Field will be raucous environments that will be great analogs for NCAA tournament play.
“It gets us in environments that we’ve got to get comfortable playing in quickly and playing against some great teams,” Pierce said. “There’s a little insanity with it. I’m not so sure it’s got the balance that we need, but at the same time, it’s going to test us.
“I think what we want to see in the early part of our season is playing well, but to be in those environments and see how much we can improve as the season goes on.”
Pierce said the infield would likely be, from left to right, junior Kody Clemens (.241/.356/.365), sophomore David Hamilton (.218/.305/.292), junior college transfer Masen Hibbeler (JUCO .493/.561/.792), and sophomore Ryan Reynolds (.212/.346/.347).
“Very good defensively,” Pierce said about the infield. “All but Reynolds really runs well, but Reynolds is great in a box. His agility is good.”
Junior catcher Michael McCann (.268/.346/.321) returns for his redshirt junior season following a breakout 2017. McCann did not see the field at all in 2016, but his bat earned playing time for him last season, and he looks to be one of the team leaders for both pitchers and hitters.
However, Pierce said that the role of everyday catcher was still up for grabs. Another junior college transfer, DJ Petrinsky (JUCO .390/.490/.677), is competing for the spot. In addition, Pierce said Petrinsky could spell Reynolds at first base depending on the pitcher, as Reynolds, a switch hitter, could be utilized in other ways. The designated hitter role likely falls to redshirt freshman Zach Zubia, who had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
During the summer, Zubia broke the single-season home run record of the wood bat Northwoods League with 22. He provides a power option Texas has needed for years in the designated hitter spot.
The outfield is one of the most athletic units Texas has fielded in a long time. Corner outfield likely will be redshirt junior Tate Shaw (.239/.358/.370) and sophomore Austin Todd (.276/.359/.359). Another JUCO could find his way into the lineup in center field with sophomore Duke Ellis (JUCO .415/.491/.615). Competing with Ellis is freshman Kamron Fields, who chose baseball at Texas over football offers from schools like Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, SMU, UTSA, and Utah out of Lakeview Centennial.
“I think defensively in the outfield we’re faster,” Pierce said. “We’ve got some experience there as well. I like our ability to go get the ball this year.”
Fields could also factor in as a pitcher on Tuesdays, and there’s an excitement around his ability in the program. As far as hitting goes, Pierce has a specific problem for Fields to work on.
“I think the biggest thing for Kam is to cut down on the strikeouts,” Pierce said. “That’s just pitch recognition. I thought we’ve done a tremendous job of changing our gears away from just the mechanics of the game. Understanding the timing and rhythm of the game and being able to carry that into our competition, but to understand pitch. That’s the toughest thing.
“Your swing could be great, but if you can’t see it and recognize the right pitches, the ones you should be hitting or the ones you should be laying off of, that to me is one of the critical things.”
Hitting should not be a nagging issue this year. That’s not to say it will be the team strength; that should be starting pitching. Texas has three pitchers familiar with pitching on the only patch of dirt at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. Junior Nolan Kingham (10-4, 2.84 ERA, .240 BAA) will get the ball on Friday nights. Junior Chase Shugart (3-2, 3.43 ERA, .253 BAA) transitions from the closer role to Saturday starter.
Shugart has some experience starting against collegiate hitting as he worked as a starter during his summer play. Pierce said they haven’t extended Shugart too far yet, and he’s still got some work stylistically on how to pitch in his new role.
“He’s really learning how to pitch versus strike everybody out,” Pierce said. “That’s key for him as a starter. Weak contact versus I’ve got to punch this guy out. His demeanor is something special right now. I think he’s going to fit in that role very well.”
Sundays will belong to sophomore Blair Henley (4-5, 4.23 ERA, .264 BAA). As far as who gets the ball on Tuesdays, Pierce has a collection of guys to choose from, mostly new faces. Fields, freshman Nico O’Donnell, JUCO transfer Mateo Bocchi (JUCO 6-4, 4.23 ERA), and freshman Bryce Elder were all mentioned by Pierce as guys who could contribute in the midweek.
The bullpen will be one of the biggest questions this season, but Pierce knows who will be at the back end. Junior Beau Ridgeway will be the closer this season (2-2, 1.89 ERA, .186 BAA) after compiling 12 saves last year. Ridgeway is a pitcher that wants the ball as often as possible, something his coach has to reign him in on. Pierce mentioned Ridgeway tells him he can pitch on Tuesdays and close during the weekend, describing him as having a “rubber arm.” However, Pierce will keep his non-conventional closer in that weekend role.
“He’s not your prototypical that’s going to throw in today’s market of 95-96 and big breaking ball,” Pierce said. “What Beau can do is he can really pitch to location. He can sink it. He’s got a great tempo. Controls the run game. If you get to Beau, you have to earn it. That’s why I like his reliability. I like his reliability in the back of the bullpen.”
After Ridgeway, a lot of the bullpen is completely unknown. Shugart transitioning to the rotation leaves little experience down the line in right field.
There is a returning arm who has gone through a long journey to get to where he’s at. After two years of medical redshirts due to arm problems, specifically a torn bicep followed by a torn labrum, junior Josh Sawyer returns to the team. Sawyer made six appearances in 2016 earning one save and throwing six innings.
Pierce mentioned he wants Sawyer’s role to be a reliever he can call multiple times per week. In that role, the team knows how strong Sawyer can be.
“They understand that he can be a difference maker,” Pierce said. “I just have to see how he’s going to be, and how we benefit from him the best. I think he’s better more frequently, more so than longevity. Two times a week he can probably do it better than an extended start. That’s kind of what we’re looking at right now. That’s how we’re building it.”
One of the biggest recent trends in baseball is positioning fielders pitch after pitch based on the hitter’s tendencies. This has even gone to an extreme in the MLB, as teams put on extreme overshifts, often with three players on one side of the infield, in order to best defend against team’s best batters.
Pierce said the Longhorns have a lot more data now than they have in the past, and will tinker with where fielders set up this season.
“We’ve got a lot more information now,” Pierce said. “Defensive positioning is one thing that we’ve been concentrating on, maybe a little version of some shifting. That, to me, is only because we’ve got the data this year or we’ve got more and more data. We’re experimenting with that.”
With the new toys will also come learning how to implement them. If, for instance, Hamilton shades to the right of second base that changes the position he’ll have to get to if the batter sends a double into the left-center field gap.
“It’s not only just moving a guy,” Pierce said. “It’s understanding your throwing angles, and where do you move on cuts and relays and communication there. That to me is still up in the air, on how we utilize that piece.”
Pierce believes that as more data becomes available to teams, shifting and positioning will be a part of the college game much like it is in the big leagues. After all, he has experience against it.
“There’s no doubt,” Pierce said on if it will spread. “You saw it against Kacy last year. Lot of people shifted on Kacy, and it was beneficial. We’re going to take a look at it.”
At Texas, excellence is the standard. The popular phrase “the pride and winning tradition of the University of Texas will not be entrusted to the weak or timid” is seen every day by players when they arrive and leave from UFCU Disch-Falk Field.
Last year, Texas got back on track to its winning ways, almost making the super regional round. In Pierce’s first year, that served as success. Of course, the standard at Texas always revolves around Omaha.
At this point, Pierce hasn’t asked for specifics about the team’s mission quite yet. He knows some of the smaller day-to-day goals, and for him that’s separate from the overall mission.
“To me, and we haven’t discussed this yet, but their goals are different than their true mission,” Pierce said. “I’m waiting to get their answers on the mission. When you look at their goals, I like them. Their goals are set to where they know how important the Tuesday/Sunday games are. They know how important it is to be ready to play every single day.”
Even off the field responsibilities make up part of the goals the team has.
“Another key is taking care of their bodies so they’re healthy and ready to play every day,” he said “Those are simple, day to day goals, but to me those are the type of goals I want to hear.”
Those little things are what can help a team overcome the opponent in close games, something which many of the Longhorns are very familiar with.
Texas played 26 one-run games last season, winning just nine of them. The last two, losses to Long Beach State, knocked Texas out of the postseason. Pierce mentioned winning one-run games was a major point of emphasis this offseason.
“When you talk about that daily, the kids hear you,” Pierce said. “They’ve probably even mentioned that in some of the interviews today. The way we’ve tried to create that is if you don’t work for something, then you really and truly don’t deserve to win it.”
Pierce mentioned he tries to create as much competition as possible during fall ball so there is a victor daily. Knowing that has made an effect on the team, according to Pierce.
“There’s a winner and a loser every day,” Pierce said. “That’s made a difference and we’ll continue that.”
Pierce admitted that every team in the country has the same mission of winning the national championship. That’s not what Pierce was looking for from the team in describing its mission at this point. What he has heard is something that will only help Texas in the long run.
“I think their mission is to take over Disch-Falk again,” Pierce said.