Baseball

Previewing Texas-LSU with And The Valley Shook

David Pierce (Joe Cook/IT)
David Pierce (Joe Cook/IT)

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The 2018 Texas baseball schedule is filled with several marquee matchups, and that’s before Big 12 Conference play even starts. One of those big matchups is this weekend as the No. 19 Longhorns travel to Baton Rouge to take on the No. 23 LSU Tigers.

In order to preview a weekend that will resemble a postseason environment, Poseur from AndTheValleyShook.com, SBNation’s LSU site, helped give a glimpse at what the Tigers have in store for the Longhorns this weekend. A similar, Longhorn-centered preview follows Poseur’s.

From: Poseur, AndTheValleyShook.com

ROTATION

Friday: RHP So. Zack Hess (0-1, 30.86 ERA, 2.1 IP, 2 K, 6 BB)
Saturday: RHP Jr. Caleb Gilbert (0-0, 10.38 ERA, 4.1 IP, 2 K, 0 BB)
Sunday: RHP So. Todd Peterson (0-1, 6.75 ERA, 4.0 IP, 2 K, 4 BB)

LSU lost its entire starting rotation from last season, but there was some optimism going into this season as Gilbert and Hess moved from important roles in the bullpen to the rotation. Furthermore, Peterson was a highly touted prospect finally getting a chance to play. As you can see from those absolutely brutal statistical lines, week one of the all-new, all-different rotation did not go as planned.

Now, some of that could be attributed to Notre Dame’s offense being pretty good. There’s also the standard excuse of the first weekend and everyone is a bit rusty. Those are nice platitudes for LSU fans, but the truth is, the rotation stunk up the joint. It’s not just that they gave 17 runs in a mere 10.2 innings, it’s that Hess and Peterson couldn’t find the strike zone with a map and compass. You are not going to beat many teams doling out free passes at a rate of one per inning.

There is talent there, even if they didn’t show it against Notre Dame. Gilbert was a vital cog of the bullpen last season, and Hess had his national coming out party in Omaha. He ran out of gas against Florida, but he was a huge reason why LSU even made the final series. However, it is an open question whether they can adjust their style to the rotation.

The good news for LSU is that with the rotation getting absolutely shelled, the bullpen got a lot of work and held down the fort. Austin Bain and Matthew Beck salvaged a win after Gilbert got lit up, holding Notre Dame scoreless for the remaining 4.2 innings. Trent Vietmeier and Ma’Khail Hillaird did the same in Game 2 before Fontenot lost the thread in the ninth. Sunday was the only day the pen gave out, and that might have been from having to cover so many innings, the depth couldn’t cover any more.

HOT BAT

Sr. Beau Jordan (.417/.533/1.167): LSU has a young lineup, but the senior carried the offense over the first weekend, bashing two home runs and garnering five extra base hits. His twin brother Bryce (who is only a junior due to sitting out last year with an injury) added a grand slam on Opening Day. It’s not Gorilla Ball anymore (LSU has swiped five bases on five attempts and even committed 2 sacrifices), but there is plenty of hitting talent down the lineup. Almost everyone has some pop, and every starter scored at least one run this weekend and all but two earned at least one RBI. It’s not the one bat you need to worry about, it’s the depth all the way down the lineup. Then again, mostly worry about Beau. He’s locked in right now.

THINGS TO WATCH

Paul Mainieri loves to tinker with his lineup in the early part of the season until he finally settles on his standard lineup in midseason. This is a great strategy for peaking in the postseason, as he usually finds that right alchemy, but it is sometimes a painful process to watch. This is a long way of saying, it’s always best to catch LSU early in the year before the team figures out what part goes where.

Injuries haven’t helped. Josh Smith started the season as the team’s shortstop, coming off of Freshman All-American honors at third base. However, he has a stress fracture in his back and will be out for at least a month. Compounding the issue, CF Zach Watson missed the midweek game against UNO with a minor injury. It’s not supposed to be serious, but LSU is currently going through a run where everything turns out to be serious. If LSU is down two of its best bats, the odds go up for Texas. LSU needed the offense to carry this team in February and March, but it cannot afford to lose any more key cogs.

Two of the big bats LSU was counting on were Nick Webre and Jake Slaughter. It’s too early to panic off of one series, but the duo combined to go 3-for-26 with one RBI. Webre was the star of the team’s preseason scrimmages, and now with Smith on a shelf, he needs to produce. LSU needs its corner infielders to provide offense.

LSU isn’t as good as they were last year, but there are plenty of puzzle pieces. The problem for the Tigers is that they haven’t figured out how those pieces fit just yet. LSU needs some time to figure itself out, but first, it needs the pitchers to provide some help. The learning curve doesn’t need to be quite this painful.

From: Joe Cook

ROTATION: 

Friday: RHP Jr. Nolan Kingham (1-0, 8 IP, 0.00 ERA, 10 K)
Saturday: RHP Jr. Chase Shugart (0-0, 6.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 3 K)
Sunday: RHP So. Blair Henley (0-0, 5.0 IP, 1.80 ERA, 5 Ks)

Kingham was the best starter for the Longhorns most of last season and picked up right where he left off in the season opener against Louisiana. After a lethargic two innings, Kingham gave Cajun batters very little to work with. He worked eight shutout innings on his way to a season opening victory. Kingham has a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s off speed, but he also works in his sinker a lot. A Golden Spikes candidate, Texas is in a good position to win most Friday night games with Kingham starting. He needs to get off to a quicker start than he did against UL though against a much better team like LSU.

Shugart is transitioning from a back end of the bullpen role to that of Saturday starter for 2018. A two-way player coming out of high school, Shugart has fully transitioned into a starting pitcher. His first start of his career resulted in his longest career outing. Shugart performed well his second time through the lineup, retiring all nine Cajun batters in their second look at him. He was in line for a victory until a blown save in the ninth. Shugart also sits in the low-90s with his fastball and possesses a slurve in his repertoire.

Henley is in year two as Texas’ Sunday starter, a role that he was 4-5 in last year with a 4.23 ERA. Henley is still a developing arm, but he has some special talent and a special edge. Henley threw three-straight no-hitters at Arlington Heights High School at the 5A level in Texas during his senior year.

HOT BAT:

Jr. Masen Hibbeler (8/17, 1 RBI): With Ryan Reynolds (Shreveport native and son of former Astro Shane Reynolds) moving from third to first and Kody Clemens (son of Roger Clemens) recovered enough from Tommy John surgery to play third, second base was up for grabs during the offseason. Hibbeler, one of the 21 new Longhorns on the 2018 team, received the Opening Day start at 2B and made the most of it, going 3-for-4 and scoring two runs. He followed it up the next day by going 3-for-5 with a RBI and was one of the hits in Texas’ ninth inning walk-off rally. He showed his versatility on Sunday against Louisiana by playing in left field. Hibbeler is a junior college transfer from Odessa College and helped the Wranglers to a conference championship in his sophomore season.

TWO THINGS TO WATCH

Texas is very comfortable with its weekend rotation of Kingham-Shugart-Henley. The Longhorns are also comfortable with the back end of the bullpen with junior Josh Sawyer, who is healthy for the first time since early 2016, and junior Beau Ridgeway, who doesn’t have traditional closer stuff but has been effective in the role in his career. In between those two points is a crapshoot. Freshman Bryce Elder got the first crack at that role on Saturday, throwing 1.1 no-hit innings to hand the game over to Ridgeway. Junior Andy McGuire got the call on Sunday, and ended up taking the loss after giving up an earned run over 1.2 innings. With freshman Nico O’Donnell getting the mid-week start, any other arm on the roster has a chance to take the middle relief role.

The Longhorns have a guy I have labeled as the college version of Michael Bourn on the basepaths in sophomore shortstop David Hamilton. Hamilton has a vacuum for a glove at short and incredible range in the field that helped him earn Texas’ Spike Owen Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2017, but his speed is what keeps opposing coaches up at night. Hamilton stole 14 bases last season and has already swiped 3 this season, but as his head coach David Pierce says, you can’t steal first. If Hamilton can get his bat going from the lead-off spot, it will set the table up well for the top of Texas’ order.

DAVID PIERCE ON THE UPCOMING MATCHUP 

Quotes are from the press conference following Wednesday’s game against Lamar. 

On what he wants from the road trip to LSU: “We talked about this week, including today, it’s a week of adaptability. Today, we played under such terrible elements and we handled that. We passed that first test. We’re going to travel, early bus. We’re probably going to get on grass for the first time in pregame in-and-out because I’m sure they’ll have a tarp on the field. Now we’re playing our first series on the road, so we’ve got to overcome that. Now were playing in an environment that’s as good as any in college baseball and playing a really good team. There’s a lot of obstacles there, so it’s a great opportunity for us to see who we are at this early stage of the game. I want to see our guys go out and just play like they play at home and be confident, attack the zone, trust their stuff, and get quality pitches to hit.”

On playing at an environment like Alex Box Stadium: “We haven’t talked about it yet because we didn’t want to look past Lamar. The one thing I can recall if you peek up and you look at the LSU being chanted, you’re in trouble. They’ve got to keep their head down and stay concentrated. It’s just a great opportunity to play in front of potentially 12, 13,000 people three nights in a row and none of them really rooting for us. It’s going to be an experience for our guys.”

His thoughts on playing a tough team like LSU in weekend two: “Our non-conference schedule is that. You open the gates up with Lafayette, who I feel like is going to be a solid team in the Sun Belt. I think they’re going to be a regional team at the end of the year. I think the timing is fine for us. I hope the weather allows for us to go out and play three solid games. “