With postseason in sight, pitching depth is a problem UT quickly needs answered

Josh Saywer (Will Gallagher/IT)
Josh Saywer (Will Gallagher/IT)

AUSTIN — At this point in the season, David Pierce’s Texas Longhorns (29-15, Big 12 11-4) can start to think about problems postseason teams face. Barring anything unforeseen, like series losses against bubble-caliber and flawed Big 12 teams at West Virginia and against TCU, Texas is in a great position to be one of 16 regional hosts.

Both Baseball America and have the Longhorns as the last host, and winning the Big 12 regular season championship would almost guarantee a host and possibly even a national seed. Before they get to that point, Texas will have to learn how to best utilize a pitching staff with problems at No. 1 and no clear No. 4.

Hitting and a resilient attitude have kept the Longhorns in countless games during the 2018 season. Junior Kody Clemens and freshman Zach Zubia lead the offensive attack and made sure no lead is insurmountable for this bunch. On Tuesday night, Texas overcame yet another three-run deficit more because of that resilient attitude than because of hitting.

Though those are to positive qualities to have, there is a hole on the roster as it comes to postseason pitching. Texas’ No. 1 starter for all of 2018, junior Nolan Kingham, has been anything but consistent.

Kingham was a strong candidate to be a high-round pick in the 2018 draft, but his performance this season has greatly reduced his stock as a starter. His bullpen contributions have been phenomenal, but his first innings have been problematic.

In 2018, he has just two starts of more than five innings and less than three earned runs allowed, not what one would expect from a Friday night guy. Despite all these struggles and a suspension for not adhering to the team’s academic attendance policy that scratched him from a start at OU, Pierce noted Kingham’s preparation and everything leading up to the game has been what he expected.

“I look at it and say I think he’s trying to do too much right now,” Pierce said Wednesday. “There’s a fine line of playing hard and playing aggressively and then forcing the game. He has to go back and go ‘is my arm free and easy? Am I in the competition? Am I in the confrontation between the hitter and me? Am I locked in in that battle?’”

“If he can get there mentally, I think it’s one pitch at a time from there.”

Fixing Kingham’s early-inning woes would go a long way toward making the path through the postseason a lot easier. Texas won’t be able to rely on just three weekend starters during the Big 12 Tournament and ensuing playoff matchups. They’ll need to look at options four, five, and six.

“We’re still building that,” Pierce said on pitching depth. “I wish it was cut and dry right now, but it hasn’t become that. We’re going to continue to see who’s the hot hand.”

There’s no lack of options, but like Pierce said, there’s no clear-cut No. 4. With multiple recent series wins and two more Tuesday matchups, there are still opportunities for Pierce to see options he might be able to trust in the postseason. “We’re just mixing and matching and trying to utilize our matchups as much as possible, and trying to extend guys that could possibly be that fourth or fifth starter,”

Freshmen or players who are playing their first year in Austin make up most of the list. Kamron Fields has been reliable out of the bullpen, but likely can’t throw more than three or four innings. Nico O’Donnell has 11 appearances, but hasn’t had the same effectiveness he showed in his four inning start against Stanford.

Matteo Bocchi has played well and immediately contributed in his first season, but likely serves the Longhorns better as a bullpen option.

Chris Fearon, Tristan Stevens, Brandon Ivey, Bryce Verplank and Matthew Whelan have received limited opportunities, but likely won’t factor into the No. 4 or No. 5 conversation.

Pierce’s prime candidate for that No. 4 spot?

“I would say right now Bryce Elder could easily be a starter for us but at the same time, as you saw last night, he’s in such a crucial role for us two times a week where he can also be extended,” Pierce said. “It’s not as easy as we would like it to appear to be, but there’s not cut and dries yet. We talk about it, but this is a unique staff.”

Elder is 5-1 with a 5.81 ERA in 16 relief appearances, his lone start a five-inning effort in place of Kingham at Oklahoma. He likely projects to be a starter in the coming seasons, but as Pierce mentioned, he is most effective out of the bullpen.

Why the reliance on younger arms? The experienced players are serving specific relief roles. Juniors Josh Sawyer, Andy McGuire, Parker Joe Robinson, and senior Jake McKenzie have solidified themselves as short relief options. Sawyer is the lone reliable left-handed option on the staff.

One name off of that list was the previous closer, junior Beau Ridgeway. Ridgeway has been completely ineffective in 2018, leading to McGuire taking over the closer role for Pierce. Ridgeway currently possesses a 9.82 ERA, but not inside the Texas facilities.

“He’s at a zero ERA,” Pierce said. “That’s what we’re selling. Moving forward from not looking at the past. That was one thing I felt unfortunate that I didn’t get an opportunity to get him in this week. You don’t really know until you get him in the games and it’s crucial times in crucial situations.”

“The one thing that you trust with Beau is that he’s going to be ready.”

Finding a fourth starter will help Texas, as Pierce put it, achieve the goal of winning five championships in a season (regular season, conference tournament, regional, super regional, College World Series). Pierce has been open with both his players and the media in recent weeks about where the team stands as far as the Big 12, hosting a regional, and RPI.

“I just think the more information that you have, you understand the landscape of college baseball,” Pierce said. “You understand how it works, then you have to put that aside and then you’ve got to go compete. I do it every day. I’m not in the box nor am I on the mound, but you’ve got to be able to compartmentalize that. I think it’s better for them to know than to not know and not understand where we are and what we’re playing for.”

More information lets Texas players know what they need to do to get those five championships, but more research for Pierce at pitcher will make the path much easier.

Texas heads to Morgantown to take on West Virginia for a weekend series beginning Friday.