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The number next to the Texas Longhorns indicating their place in the national rankings has moved closer and closer to No. 1 as the season has progressed. Their jump up to No. 3 or No. 4 depending on publication coincides with a 10-game win streak following the 6-5 win over Nevada on Wednesday.
Expectations, as they always are on the east side of IH-35, were high at the beginning of the year. An all-conference transfer replaced the only regular position player lost from the 2020 season David Pierce’s club started 14-3. A new Friday night arm stepped in for the team’s only pick in a shortened MLB Draft, and he arguably acts as an upgrade at the No. 1 starter spot. As Texas continues to play winning baseball and achieve victory with various methods, they understand the spotlight now shines upon them.
It isn’t just supporters of the program who are tuning in taking note of what the Longhorns are doing. Opponents are as well, and those opponents would love nothing more than to knock off a program on its hottest run since 2018.
“We have a target on our back, and that’s good,” Pierce said Tuesday. “It’s what we want. We want expectations. We want people to play their A game or prepare for us, because that means they’re paying attention.”
Ever since the 0-3 start, Texas has not lost a series and sits atop the Big 12 standings midway through conference play. There have been some dominant wins where every phase of the game was clicking, but also some occasions where Texas had to scrounge up runs and trudge through bullpen innings.
Wednesday’s game versus Nevada was one of those contests, and even after allowing a four-run Wolfpack eighth, there was no pressing in the Texas dugout. There was no fear. They just did what they have done all season.
“This isn’t a situation we haven’t been in before, especially against Kansas State,” Pete Hansen said Wednesday following his no decision. “The same thing happened. They took a lead and then we responded right away, so I had all the trust in my guys.”
The Horns welcome Abilene Christian to UFCU Disch-Falk Field this weekend in a non-conference series, a byproduct of the Big 12 having just nine baseball playing institutions. The Wildcats rank No. 144 in RPI as a result of playing 25 quadrant four games, and all three of their weekend starters have ERAs above 4.50.
ACU isn’t likely to present the challenge that No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 12 TCU, or No. 8 Texas Tech will in their conference contests in the coming weeks. That makes no difference to this Longhorn team.
“It doesn’t really matter who comes to the ballpark, who comes to our field,” Hansen said. “We’re going to beat them and we’re going to give them our best. That’s something we’ve done a good job of, not letting off the gas and still pushing ourselves. We fall back on our systems and I think our systems are really good right now.”
In recent weeks, Pierce discussed how his 2021 squad is as intense in its preparation as any team he has been around. He mentioned there were times he needed to scale back the workload in practice because of how much the players were getting extra work in on their own.
That motivation has been around since the beginning of the season. When UT facilities were closed during the polar vortex’s dip into Central Texas, Pierce mentioned they had to bar players from entering the J. Dan Brown Player Development Center. Members of his team found other ways to work, including playing catch just south of the Littlefield Fountain.
His team has maintained that work ethic since late February. He continues to sing their praises, and rightfully so looking at their 27-8 record. But he also understands national championships aren’t won in April. Nor are conference championships. Postseason berths have not been issued, though Texas stands a strong chance of being one of the top eight teams in the nation come May 31 when regional hosts are announced.
Work remains for the Longhorns, and that isn’t news to them. They know they’re a good team, but they don’t plan on letting that get to their head. They are aware of the expectations, very aware even.
Their thoughts on those standards? Bring ‘em on.
“We’re not scared of it,” Pierce said. “We just understand it. We talked in our pre-week meeting on Tuesday that, you know, people are going to start congratulating you. And we have a lot of baseball to play. We have huge series coming up in Big 12 play.”
He continued: “This series is a character check for us coming in. I don’t know if there is a formula. They just have to be mature about it, and we just have to have a good workout tomorrow and not get too comfortable.”