Baseball

Two aspects top-ten Texas baseball must improve to be elite

Masen Hibbeler (Will Gallagher/IT)
Masen Hibbeler (Will Gallagher/IT)

Halfway through the most challenging portion of its schedule, the No. 9 Texas Longhorns (D1Baseball.com) are 15-7 overall with series wins over every weekend opponent save Stanford.

Texas won the first Big 12 series of the season when they took two of three from visiting Texas Tech over the weekend. Now midway through its difficult March schedule, Texas knows a lot about itself.

A lot of what it knows is good, but there are still some facets of the team that haven’t lived up to top ten in the nation billing. Improvement in those areas would be timely prior to hosting No. 11 Arkansas and traveling to No. 22 TCU this week in the last difficult test prior to the rest of Texas’ Big 12 slate.

Stalls

Stanford’s Erik Miller and Texas Tech’s Caleb Kilian both can make claims to be one of the better weekend arms in their respective conferences. Purdue’s Andrew Bohm doesn’t carry the same résumé as those other two pitchers, but he was able to match them in one key area.

All three hurlers started and were dominant contributors in pitching efforts that limited the Longhorns to just one hit.

Some publications have Texas as high as fourth in the nation. Others have David Pierce’s team as one of the last teams in the top 20. Considering the difficult schedule and the youth that has helped Texas win 15 of its first 22, there are a lot of positives to be taken as Texas approaches the halfway point of the season.

However, a team that wants to be nationally elite shouldn’t be one-hit three separate times.

It goes a little deeper than getting one-hit. Texas went through a double-digit inning hitless stretch over the weekend that crossed all three games. Texas was able to earn the series victory and did it over a top 15 team. However, the offense can’t just stall out against opponents of varying skill level if Pierce wants to make another postseason run.

Prior to the season and before two season-ending injuries to starters, Pierce thought hitting would be a team strength. Disch-Falk Field somewhat deflates offensive numbers, but the production so far hasn’t quite been what Pierce expected.

“You take David Hamilton and DJ Petrinsky out of that, two of your best returning offensive players, then you put young people in there, our backups, you’re going to suffer a little bit,” Pierce said Sunday. “They’re doing it for the first time right now, and it also changes the defensive dynamic because now you move (Masen) Hibbeler to short. It’s just something you have to fight through. It’s not a perfect world.”

For Texas, only one of those dismal hitting performances were part of a series loss. With more difficult opponents on the upcoming schedule like Arkansas, TCU, Texas A&M, and Baylor, Texas cannot afford to have its offense not show up to the park and expect to be considered a top ten team.

Solving that issue would remedy of the biggest issues affecting the young team that has made several strides in other aspects of the game.

The Big Inning

The prospect of “score more runs and limit the other team from doing so” seems like a simple enough program standard. After a look at the “score more runs portion,” what is keeping Texas from preventing opponents from scoring?

Is it the pitching staff? Defense? A little bit of both.

The overall performance from Texas’ pitching staff in 2019 has been better than expected considering the amount of first-year players getting innings. Ty Madden, Coy Cobb, Cole Quintanilla, Mason Bryant, Kolby Kubichek, and several other young arms have been part of a bullpen that has succeeded far more than 2018’s bullpen at the same stage.

The entire staff has pitched well enough to win, but there are times when things fall apart and fall apart quickly.

Texas has allowed a four-run inning in six games this year. Five of those games resulted in losses with the lone win being the second game of the year at Louisiana.

Those big innings normally are the result of bases on balls. The pet peeve of every manager, Pierce included, has hurt Texas this season. Somehow Texas avoided a loss Sunday despite walking nine, but those types of performances are not sustainable if Texas aspires to be elite. “We’ve got to get our confidence back on the mound,” Pierce said Sunday.

It might be easier to create that confidence when Texas plays error-free baseball. The Longhorns went the whole weekend without committing an error against a Red Raider team that thrives on putting the ball in play.

Pierce made a lineup adjustment to counter that skill, but the decision may have been in the works.

After Masen Hibbeler began the season at second, Pierce moved him to short in Bryce Reagan’s place and started Lance Ford at second against Texas Tech. Reagan was decent with the bat for a freshman, but led the team in errors through the early portion of the year.

Hibbeler offers flexibility in a middle infield that’s still figuring out how to best replace David Hamilton. Helping Texas to an error-free weekend and taking a direct role in preventing opponents from scoring runs was huge for his overall confidence.

“I feel like as a defensive core we were real locked in,” Hibbeler said Sunday. “The older guys were making sure the younger guys were ready to go on each play and letting them know what hitters’ tendencies were. Even if the pitchers were struggling, we were able to pick them up in the field.”

Texas baseball has long thought of itself as a pitching and defense program. Both feed off each other, but a defense rounding into form can pay dividends for a young pitching staff trying to do the same.