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On March 6, 2019, the Texas Longhorns were 11-3 and coming off a midweek win over UT-Rio Grande Valley and a sweep of No. 1 LSU in Austin.
That day, Texas announced senior catcher DJ Petrinsky would miss the remainder of the season with a torn labrum. The Longhorns went 16-24 the rest of the way, finished 27-27, and were left out of both the NCAA and Big 12 tournaments.
Petrinsky was sorely missed. He slashed .257/.340/.452 (BA/OBP/SLG) during his 2018 campaign when the Longhorns advanced to the College World Series. In 2019, his backups Michael McCann and Caston Peter combined to hit .194/.279/.347. Defensively, Texas ranked third in conference for most passed balls and wild pitches.
Texas applied for and received a medical hardship waiver for the Hill College product, giving Petrinsky one more season in Austin. Texas hopes the redshirt senior can provide a veteran presence in the clubhouse, in the batter’s box, and behind the plate it lacked for the majority of the 2019 season.
“I’m excited,” Petrinsky said January 24. “Sitting on the bench all of last year, or half of last year, it was pretty tough to watch us fall apart. I think we have the right guys to fix that and I think we have the right guys to come out and have a great season.”
The 2019 Longhorns sank without Petrinsky. They lost 60 percent of their games without him available and tumbled to a .500 season at Texas.
Longhorn players struggled on the field, but Petrinsky struggled being off it. He was not able to travel with the team for road series. Instead, he would have to scroll through Twitter to find out how his teammates were doing.
Without Petrinsky, it normally wasn’t well.
Last year, Texas’ roster was split almost 50-50 between players who were a part of the 2018 Big 12 Champion team and players in their first season as Longhorns. When Texas lost Petrinsky a few weeks after losing shortstop David Hamilton for the year, it lost two players who could help to balance the lineup.
Their absence not only meant Texas was without two of its best players, but also two players who could help the Longhorns emerge from a mediocre stretch between the end of Petrinsky’s season and a 9-6 home loss to Texas A&M on April 2.
When the losses piled up, they piled upon a team with many first-year players and lacking the leadership core that boosted them to Omaha a year prior. Players who consistently won at the high school level prior to arriving in Austin hit a wall that Pierce and the rest of his staff couldn’t help them through.
As painful as that stretch and the resulting end of the season was for Texas, it offered lessons Petrinsky hopes to apply in 2020.
“Sitting back and watching it helped me understand what makes a team click, that chemistry you’ve got to have,” Petrinsky said. “Sitting on the side and watching us not have the best season was really hard. I know what it takes to lead these younger guys, and we have great leaders returning.”
While Petrinsky’s off the field contributions are important to Texas’ 2020 aspirations, Pierce and company didn’t apply for a medical hardship just so they could have another voice in the dugout.
Petrinsky’s .257 batting average in 2018 and even his .256 mark over 11 games spent at first base and designated hitter far outpaced what other catchers on the roster posted. McCann stepped into a role he didn’t win and wasn’t prepared for. Peter anticipated being the third catcher and rarely receiving playing time. Instead, he became the backup as a freshman, a role in which more experience would have helped.
Texas doesn’t need a .332/.397/.604, All-Big 12 season from Petrinsky like the one Baylor’s Shea Langeliers produced in 2019. The Longhorns believe that they have a stout top four in the lineup in senior Duke Ellis, junior Zach Zubia, senior Austin Todd, and sophomore Eric Kennedy, and that type of production is more likely to come from one of those four than from Petrinsky.
What Texas does need is for Petrinsky to provide a higher floor at the plate than the duo of McCann and Peter.
Longhorn pitchers also missed Petrinsky during the 2019 season. They weren’t longing only for the run support his bat could offer, but his presence behind the plate, too.
McCann played in 50 games and started 44 of them, both career highs. During those 50 games, pitchers like Kamron Fields, Bryce Elder, and Mason Bryant struggled with control.
Those three and several other pitchers rely on hard breaking pitches that often start in the strike zone and end in the dirt. Without Petrinsky, many of those pitches ended up got away from catchers. Texas’ 16 passed balls and 59 wild pitches were the third most in the Big 12 in both categories.
The Longhorn coaches believe the presence of Petrinsky behind the plate should shrink those totals and help the pitching staff in 2020.
“I think it’s not just the catching, but I think it’s guys setting, trusting, and throwing their pitches with conviction and not worrying about a negative result,” Texas head coach David Pierce said Saturday. “Having security with a guy like DJ back there gives you that security as well.”
Petrinsky believes he’ll be at 100 percent as the season begins with a three-game series at Rice beginning February 14. If his process has any setbacks, Texas won’t need to ask for a NCAA waiver for depth. Peter returns, and freshmen Silas Ardoin and Peyton Powell gives Texas multiple catching options behind Petrinsky.
But Texas knows its odds to recover from a disappointing 2019 are better with Petrinsky not just in the dugout, but in the lineup as catcher.