David Pierce’s second season as head coach of the Longhorn baseball program has tested his ability to lead a program, and that was before the first pitch against Louisiana-Lafayette was thrown in February. After losing double-digit players to the draft, Pierce had to bring in half-a-roster last summer to contribute to the 2018 season.
There were some knowns on the team like junior Kody Clemens and sophomore David Hamilton among several solid batters and a Big 12 best defense, but the rest of team had plenty of questions. How would the bullpen, the biggest question mark, fare through a schedule filled with top 20 teams? How would junior Chase Shugart and sophomore Blair Henley do as starters following junior Nolan Kingham? Who would be reliable in the bullpen?
The difficult early portion of the season, which Pierce alluded to prior to the first game when he said the schedule needed more balance, proved Texas was not quite yet at an elite level in Pierce’s second year. Texas dropped two of three to LSU in Baton Rouge, with one loss coming as a result of a major collapse. The Tigers aren’t as strong as they were last year when they went to the CWS Finals, but they are in the thick of the SEC West race.
The Longhorns then won three of four against Northwestern in Austin, but lost three of four to an elite Stanford team the following weekend.
There was no rest for the Longhorns as they had to immediately travel to Fayetteville for a two game midweek against similarly elite Arkansas. They were crushed in game one and lost a closer game in the Wednesday matchup.
There’s a common trope among coaching that, especially in college baseball, teams decide to play difficult opponents early in the season in order to prepare for postseason environments and tournament-caliber teams. That held true for the Longhorns as LSU, Arkansas, and Stanford all drew large crowds. It was proof Texas baseball still is a big deal.
It was also proof that the group Pierce had to throw together had a long way to go, but Pierce was able to learn a lot.
He learned his top five defense from his first year in 2017 was still solid. It sits just 0.04 percentage points behind what was the fourth-ranked defense last year. Hamilton and sophomore Ryan Reynolds’ gloves on the left side of the Texas infield have saved countless runs, and super-utility senior Jake McKenzie’s emergence at first base has done the same (McKenzie even played all nine positions in a run rule shortened game recently).
He learned that Clemens and redshirt freshman designated hitter Zach Zubia, who sat out due to both transfer restrictions and for recovery from surgery, were legitimate power hitters. Clemens and Zubia are one-two on the team in almost every offensive category.
He learned that Hamilton has progressed at the plate, raising his average 70 points to .282 and his on base percentage almost 130 points to .425, which allowing him to use his elite speed to steal 26 bases.
He learned that JUCO transfer Masen Hibbeler nearly matches the utility McKenzie provides. Hibbeler found a home in left field and in the two spot in the lineup, and is batting .273 on the season.
Those five are the most reliable on offense. Sure, McKenzie, Reynolds, juniors Tate Shaw, DJ Petrinsky, Michael McCann, and sophomore Duke Ellis had some moments, but they aren’t the consistent bats the top four in the lineup have been.
As Texas moved into conference play some clarity began to develop out of the biggest question before the season; the bullpen. That clarity was not always the result of positive developments. After recording 12 saves in 2017 and posting a 1.89 ERA, junior Beau Ridgeway has been extremely ineffective. At this point in the season, he has just three saves, a 9.00 ERA, and just 15 appearances. Pierce was forced to turn to more inexperienced arms in his place.
It took some lumps but first year players Bryce Elder, Matteo Bocchi, Kamron Fields, and Nico O’Donnell have become Pierce’s arms of choice out of the bullpen. Juniors Parker Joe Robinson and Josh Sawyer have also enjoyed renaissance years out of the ‘pen, with Sawyer serving as the left-handed option. Those are all positive developments, but questions remain about pitching depth because the postseason is a very likely possibility.
That depth isn’t just a problem at No. 4, it’s become a problem at No. 1. Kingham has been wildly inconsistent in a year that could have been his last at Texas. Shugart has gone through growing pains transitioning from reliever to starter. Henley has had good and bad starts, with one bad inning normally costing him.
That’s an issue in the postseason, but the bats have made up for it in the regular season, especially during Big 12 play.
Texas currently is 11-4 in the Big 12, good for second in the conference and one game behind Oklahoma State. Speaking of the Cowboys, Texas took two of three from the Pokes in Austin in late March one week after sweeping Kansas to open conference play.
Then, trouble hit. Texas lost two of three to Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas State in Manhattan. Friday and Saturday were both tough losses: Friday’s a 5-2 loss with minimal offense, Saturday’s the result of a Ridgeway blown save following an attempted comeback.
The Longhorns didn’t stay down long as they swept Baylor at home the following week sending them into an emotional week of baseball. A trip to Texas A&M followed by a weekend at Oklahoma would tax the team’s psyche and stability.
Texas dropped the one-off to the Aggies despite an attempted comeback, then notched two come-from-behind-victories over the then conference-leading Sooners in Norman. The sweep attempt came up short, but Texas came back from across the Red River in a great spot mentally and in the conference.
The Longhorns have a decent 8-3 midweek record with the only losses coming to the Aggies and Razorbacks. The eight have not been over anyone to write home about (Texas State, UT-RGV, UTSA to name a few), but they have not lost a home midweek, something that would hamper the team’s No. 33 RPI ranking.
After taking two of three from New Orleans this weekend, a mild disappointment but a series win nonetheless, Texas welcomes Houston on Tuesday before traveling to Morgantown to take on middling West Virginia. The Big 12 is there for the taking for the Longhorns, but the road to it can’t take a disastrous turn against the Mountaineers like 2016 had when WVU swept Texas in three easy wins.
Following the long road trip, Texas welcomes the Bobcats in an I-35 matchup before taking on one more elite team in Lubbock.
Despite a 10-5 conference record, the Red Raiders have only lost nine games this season. They’re top five in the nation in batting average and score nearly 10 runs per game, launching almost a homer and a half per game into the Lubbock wind.
After the Red Raiders, TXST travels north one more time before the Longhorns battle TCU. The Horned Frogs are a different team without star player Luken Baker, who sustained yet another season ending injury. However, that is a team that might be fighting for its postseason life as many mock fields of 64 have the Frogs on the outside looking in.
Texas is in a position to take the regular season conference crown for the first time since 2011, which would end the program’s longest drought without a conference title. Of the four teams in the race (UT, OU, OSU, TTU), Texas has taken two series, while the only other matchup among those teams resulted in Tech taking two of three from the Sooners this weekend.
Obviously, a lot of scenarios could play out with so many head-to-heads yet to occur, but one scenario exists that results in the Longhorns taking home the Big 12 regular season championship.
The Big 12 is not as strong as it was last season where the 11-12 conference mark (in a stronger conference) paired with a run to the conference tournament finals earned Texas a two seed in Long Beach. Winning it, however, would bring postseason play to Austin for the first time since 2014, and a regional for the first time since 2011.