When the Longhorns take the field on Saturday evening at the 2011 College World Series for a record 34th time, it won't be at the familiar confines of Rosenblatt Stadium. A year after missing the farewell to the venerable Omaha landmark, Augie Garrido and his gritty 'Horns will get acquainted with the new downtown ballfield, TD Ameritrade Park.
In recent years, leaving the cavernous Disch behind often resulted in power spikes for otherwise generally light-hitting Texas teams and players. Names like Chance Wheeless, Will Crouch, Nick Peoples, and Connor Rowe all strike chords with hardcore Texas baseball fans -- they were all players who used home runs at Rosenblatt in June to etch their names in Longhorn lore, aided by winds that generally blew out.
Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately as the case may be -- this edition of the Longhorns will deal with the combination of the orientation of the new stadium and the new bats, which have decreased power numbers significantly across the board, which may keep the Longhorns from benefiting from the power surge of previous years. Instead of blowing out towards left field, the wind at the new stadium often blows in -- as a result, baseball experts in Omaha have said that TD Ameritrade Park plays much bigger than Rosenblatt.
While that's bad news for Texas hitters hoping for the long ball (shorten your swing, Jordan Etier), the fact of the matter is that unlike the 2009 and 2010 teams, which relied on the big bats of players like Cameron Rupp, Kevin Keyes, and Russell Moldenhauer -- players that combined for 34 of the 81 Texas home runs in 2010 -- this Texas team truly embraces Augie-Ball, for good reason.
As PB mentioned following the Regional victory, the combination of the team's lack of pop and the new bats virtually eliminate the oft-used sabermetric arguments against giving away outs through sacrifices and place a greater emphasis on execution and timely hitting:
Before, when the bats were purely metal and Texas teams slugged upwards of .550, you had to do some explanatory gymnastics to justify Augie Garrido's approach to managing offensive production. His overall record of success made it possible, but it literally required asserting the predominance of intangibles over hard math. But with the change in bats and the accompanying (drastic) decrease in offensive production, the college baseball game now is actually set up to reward precisely those qualities that Augie Garrido values most: pitching, defense, manufacturing runs, etc.
Whatever one thought of Augie's approach in the live bat era, in the current landscape its value is amplified as never before. And it was on full display on Monday afternoon: While on numerous occasions Kent State threatened to pop Texas with that devastating big inning, it never came (thanks, largely, to Texas's exceptional pitching and defense) and they wound up with goose eggs. Texas, meanwhile, aggressively played to manufacture production and, without ever really threatening to break open a big inning, was successful time and again in picking up a single run where the opportunity presented itself.
Kent State waited for big hits that never came; and Texas perfectly executed plays for single runs that panned out every single time. It was Augie-Ball at its apex, and not only was it a joy to watch, but this year it makes more sense than ever.
If the new stadium will work against hitters compared to Rosenblatt, Longhorn pitching should benefit. After holding a powerful Arizona State team to only one home run in three games over the weekend, Taylor Jungmann and company may need some help from the prevailing winds to keep players like Florida catcher Mike Zunino in the ballpark. Zunino's outstanding sophomore campaign has seen him put up impressive power numbers despite the punch-less new bats -- 18 home runs along with 26 doubles, enough for Kendall Rogers of Perfect Game USA to tab the Gator backstop as the top hitter in the field. Overall, the Gators are a significantly more potent offense than the Longhorns, hitting 67 home runs to 17 for Texas and slugging 90 percentage points better.
The top section of the bracket also features Vanderbilt, the team Rogers considers to have the most potent offense, led by slugging first baseman Aaron Westlake and a deep lineup behind him that combines to hit .319. By comparison, Texas hits only .272 as a team. In addition, 50-win North Carolina lurks as well and in looking at the three possible opponents for the Longhorns, it becomes apparent why some analysts are calling that half the bracket of death.
The bottom line is that missing opportunities to score runs as the Longhorns did against Arizona State on Sunday could mean a quick trip to the loser's bracket and an extremely difficult path to the finals. Meanwhile, the pitching will have to continue at the same high level that punched the 'Horns' ticket to Omaha and Taylor Jungmann needs to return to his winning ways -- though in all fairness his effort against Arizona State would have been good enough had the Longhorns not kicked the ball around in the field and gone silent offensively.
Considering the bats Texas will have to face on the road to the finals, Augie Garrido better be praying to the baseball gods for TD Ameritrade Park to play much more like the Disch than Rosenblatt.