Baseball

Texas Baseball’s window to a conference title indicative of 2021 team’s level of play

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Texas is ranked No. 2 in the nation, is an extremely strong contender for a national seed, can reach the 40-win threshold for the first time since 2018, and record its best conference record since 2011 this weekend with a series victory over West Virginia at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. It possesses all the signs of a strong team with lofty postseason intentions; multiple ace-level starters, big bats at the top of the lineup, and excellent speed around the diamond.

But it will still need some help in order to gain a share of the Big 12 regular season championship.

David Pierce’s Longhorns trail the TCU Horned Frogs by a game in the Big 12 standings, and TCU heads to Manhattan this weekend to take on Kansas State. Texas will need help from K-State ace Jordan Wicks, but help from any Wildcat to take one from TCU will do.

Texas also needs to take care of business themselves.

If TCU and Texas exit the weekend with similar records, the two clubs will share the Big 12 regular season title. Texas will be the No. 1 seed in next week’s Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City thanks to their head-to-head record.

The upcoming weekend somewhat harkens back to the final regular season weekend of 2018, when Texas entered its series with TCU two games back of Oklahoma State. Thanks to efforts from Kody Clemens, Nolan Kingham, and Chase Shugart, the Longhorns swept the Horned Frogs and Texas Tech swept Oklahoma State giving Texas its first outright Big 12 regular season championship since 2010.

Though their situations are similar, the teams are different. Both squads have transcendent hitters, as 2018 had Clemens and 2021 has Ivan Melendez. Where Clemens carried the load almost single-handedly (he was the only player with a batting average above .300), Melendez has plenty of others contributing to the offensive onslaught.

Two others, Zach Zubia and Mitchell Daly, join Melendez with averages above .300. Douglas Hodo III isn’t too far from the mark at .298. In conference, Melendez, Daly, Hodo III, and Cam Williams all have marks above .300.

Another contrast between 2018 and 2021? Four players in 2018 – Clemens, Zubia, DJ Petrinsky, and David Hamilton – hit more than five home runs. In 2021, there’s no one who will match Clemens’ 24 homer mark, but there are now five players with more than five dingers: Melendez, Zubia, Williams, Hodo III, and Mike Antico.

The differences aren’t just on the offensive side, but on the mound, too. In 2018, Kingham and Shugart were the two most reliable arms. In Pierce’s mind, they may have been the only reliable arms. In 2021, all three starting pitchers in Ty Madden, Tristan Stevens, and Pete Hansen are reliable contributors Texas can expect to deliver winning performances each time they toe the rubber.

They’re backed up by fabulous freshmen Tanner Witt and Aaron Nixon, with Cole Quintanilla coming on of late as another effective arm. Those differences serve as evidence that Pierce’s 2021 squad is as complete a ballclub as he’s built while at Texas. Skilled bats, power pitching, proficient fielding, and speed all around the order.

It’s what Texas believes Texas Baseball should look like.

Pierce’s four-plus seasons at Texas have been filled with ups and downs. From a heartbreaking finish in his first season in 2017, to an Omaha run in 2018, to the failure that was 2019, to the COVID-shortened 2020, it hasn’t always been easy sailing for Texas’ skipper.

This season he has built a squad that, while not necessarily on cruise control, can overcome its occasional lapses with quality play in all three phases. No lead seems too insurmountable for this team. It expects to win every single game. If it drops one, a rarity especially at home, it is able to re-center and rectify what might have brought about defeat.

It’s a credit not just to Pierce, but to assistant coaches Troy Tulowitzki, Sean Allen, and Phillip Miller. It’s also credit to the entire player personnel, operations, and analytics staffs working daily to ensure Texas can go 25-4 at home, 13-5 away from home, and recover after a week of sub-zero temperatures wrecked the practice schedule ahead of three season-opening matchups with top eight teams.

Texas has all the bells and whistles top tier programs need to stay competitive with other peer programs. Its recruiting is strong but still has room for improvement, something seasons like 2021 can assist with. The demeanor around the program has improved tremendously since the 27-27 record of two seasons ago.

And now, Texas is winning like Texas teams of years past.

Success in Omaha is the main standard of the Longhorn program considering it’s been to the College World Series 36 times. But a conference title would indicate how consistent and resilient the team has been throughout the unique 2021 season.

Even if they don’t get the help from Kansas State they need, the No. 2 Longhorns have proved one thing this year: they’re an extremely tough out, like so many successful Texas teams before them.