Baseball

Texas had fun in 2021, but the NCAA tournament means it’s time to turn the page

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Baseball can easily become monotonous over time. College baseball does not have the same 162-game grind of the major leagues, but five-straight months of baseball six days a week is a grueling trek, win or lose.

So when Texas won the Big 12 regular season title, Longhorns head coach David Pierce celebrated. He traveled home in his full uniform and jumped into his pool, No. 22 jersey and all.

“When you have those opportunities, you take advantage of them,” Pierce said Monday following Texas’ selection as the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. “I love the game. I love these kids. I love this level of baseball, so why not celebrate it? All we do is work. We might as well celebrate the victories, right?”

That was how Pierce ended his post-selection show availability. On Thursday, he was asked once again about the dip he took in his Nike burnt orange threads and if he believed his team enjoyed Texas’ successful 2021 regular season in a similar way.

“I definitely think they’re having a blast, and we relay that information to them,” he said. “The game is hard. It’ll beat you up, so you have to have the ability to have a good time. At the same time, your good time is enjoying the grind.”

The Big 12 title was proof that the effort his team put in over the course of a regular season was worth it. But the regular season is over.

Said Pierce: “Now, flip the page and move on.”

The next chapter in the book of the 2021 season is the upcoming Austin regional. Texas hosts two-seed Arizona State, three-seed Fairfield, and four-seed Southern in the second regional at UFCU Disch-Falk Field of Pierce’s tenure.

The first came in 2018, Pierce’s second season. A veteran team led by an offensive explosion from Kody Clemens boosted the team to Omaha.

Overall, Pierce’s 2021 team is more complete. It boasts excellent fielding, elite starting pitching, and a far more well-rounded lineup than the one from three years ago. But Pierce made sure to note his team is “still a work in progress every single day.” The Big 12 tournament and the Longhorn struggles at the plate offer strong evidence behind Pierce’s statement.

There are lessons from that 2018 run, Pierce’s first to Omaha as a head coach. He mentioned there’s no reason to drastically shake up the routine of a team that remained in the top 10 of major polls for most of the season. It’s about doing what they have done very successfully for most of the season, and fixing the problems at hand. And enjoying the grind, of course.

“For me, it’s just getting their minds clear, getting their confidence going, and one of our drills today has a lot to do with that,” Pierce said Monday. “Hopefully we can get them to relax and see the baseball.”

Pierce’s players reiterated his message. Take Tristan Stevens, who was announced as the game one starter. He expressed plenty of confidence in his teammates because of how they’ve handled the 2021 season.

“We seem like a team that we’re never really fazed by adversity,” Stevens said. “We know what we bring to the table. The best thing about this team is that we can win in multiple ways. Whether it’s pitching, defense, or timely hitting, this team can beat you in multiple ways. That’s what gives us the confidence to face up against anyone.”

The first matchup is with a Southern team that only made the NCAA tournament with a run to the SWAC tournament title. The Jaguars entered the SWAC tournament 16-27, but went on to win 4 of 5 to earn an NCAA berth.

There’s no overlooking anyone now, especially after a showing in Oklahoma City where Texas bowed out far earlier than it wanted to. It was a lesson learned, according to Pierce.

“They understand that, and they know that we need to be at our best going into regional play and the postseason,” Pierce said. “I don’t think we’re going to have to convince them of anything or motivate them. I think they’re going to be right.”

Not every team is able to play in June. The No. 2 overall seed is a reward for an impressive regular season. But now the new season is about to begin. It’s not win or go home, but there’s plenty to be done this weekend before any plans about a top eight place and trip north to Nebraska can come to fruition.

Texas is ready and trusts the way they’ve done things this season to help them against three visiting teams. The fun way, that is.

“We’ve been doing it all year,” Stevens said. “There’s nothing really to change. It’s just back to work and let’s get our preparation going.”

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Pierce announced Stevens as the game one starter on Thursday, choosing his typical Saturday starter over Ty Madden, Pete Hansen, and Kolby Kubichek.

Southern presents little threat to a team like Texas, but the decision isn’t so much about saving Madden for a tougher test.

“I think he has the ability to bounce back better than any of our starters,” Pierce said of Stevens. “I think if you bounce Pete in front of him, it puts you at a potential of not enough rest. And I like where Tristan is as far as coming in one day earlier. I also feel like he is our best strike thrower.”

In 2018, Pierce made a similar decision in game one of the regional. He elected to start former reliever Chase Shugart in the first game, saving No. 1 Nolan Kingham for a game two matchup.

Stevens, like Shugart, began his Texas career in the bullpen. If it came down to it, he could more easily throw an inning in a decisive game on Monday than someone like Madden who has been locked into the Friday spot all season.

There’s a strategic aspect as well. Stevens pounds the strike zone, plain and simple. And Southern, despite it’s deficiencies, does have a speedy lineup. The Jaguars were No. 25 in the country in stolen bases this season, swiping 78 bases in 48 games.

“When you play a team like Southern that’s going to depend on the running game, you’ve got to be able to be really good at making them earn everything they get,” Pierce said. “(Stevens) can minimize pitches in innings, so it allows him to possibly get deep in games without utilizing a bunch of pitches.”

The move saves Madden for a more difficult opponent in either Fairfield or Arizona State. Then, Pete Hansen is available for whatever Texas needs from him for the third game, should they make it.

It will use one of Texas’ top two arms up on day one of the tournament, but it leaves the door open to his use on day four, too.

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Texas’ bats struggled in Oklahoma City, and no one was immune.

As a team, the Longhorns were 21-for-117 at the plate, a full 21 points below the .200 Mendoza line. Even the two leading hitters, Ivan Melendez and Mitchell Daly, had rough gos in the Big 12 tournament.

Melendez struck out nine times in three games, and was held out of the final game versus Oklahoma State. Daly was 0-for the weekend in Bricktown.

Pierce was asked Monday about his team’s recent issues at the plate.

“I think the best thing that happened for us is that we were able to get past the 0-2 and to play the two additional games so we have better information,” Pierce said. “When you look back at the tournament, then looking at film and then talking to coaches, I just feel like the guys got away from who they are. They got a little bit big in their swings. It’s a good place to drive the ball out of the ballpark, so you get a little pull-happy. A little tension with two strikes creates bad swings or chasing pitches, and that’s something our young players need to understand and learn from.”

“We faced good stuff, but we’re going to face good stuff the rest of the way so we have to deal with that. They key for us is getting back to the middle of the field and being committed to the middle of the field, not just hitting fly balls but being committed to line drives up the middle. That’s what we’ve preached, we just kind of got away from that unfortunately. Fortunately, it’s reference for us that we can use moving forward.”

“I really think we’ll be fine. We’re a solid offensive team. We understand at times we have to create, but there is power in our lineup when they hit correctly. It’s not necessarily ‘get your A-swing off’ and means to pull the ball. It means hit the ball where it’s pitched on the line with you’re A-swing. Your A-swing meaning 0-0 and hit counts, getting in situations where you have better pitches.”

“I think pitch selection, seeing the ball deep, and staying in the middle of the field will be our reference all week.”