My view of Texas's brilliant 5-0 win over Kent State to win the Austin Regional.
There are lots of difficult, not-so-fun things about being a corporate attorney. Not among them is when a partner at the firm -- a former pitcher for the Longhorns, no less -- stops by your office at noon-thirty and says, "Put down whatever you're doing. Let's go watch Texas win the Regional."
Who was I to argue? I went, and Texas delivered, winning the Austin Regional behind an oustanding 5-0 victory over Kent State. On a hot, humid, windless afternoon that saw the scoreboard temperature rise to 102 degrees, Texas was crisp and cool as can be, taking control of the game immediately and never letting up for a moment. Impressive as was the box score, it doesn't reflect just how well Texas played or the manner by which they took control of the game.
On a blistering hot Monday afternoon, a rowdy Texas crowd was treated to arguably the best team performance of the year.
And what do you know, the 'Horns finally won three straight games. Not a moment too soon...
A few scattered thoughts, after the jump.
The Augie Era. 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.
Brandon Loy, MVP. Tant Shepard garnered Regional MVP honors, and though I certainly don't want to take anything away from Shepard (who was consistently brilliant this weekend), I just have to note the magnificence of Brandon Loy, who I personally see as Texas's most valuable player. We knew when he was a no-hitting freshman that he had a tremendous glove, but he's developed into the team's best overall player in ways that were completely unforeseeable at the time. My favorite play today came in the at-bat after a Loy double-clutch (ruled an error) allowed Kent State's speedy second baseman Derek Toadvine to reach first base early in the game: Sam Stafford promptly threw a ball in the dirt, and when Toadvine tried to take second, Loy perfectly fielded and applied the tag on a wide throw from the catcher to erase the baserunner.
Loy has become the Longhorns' most dangerous hitter without being its Most Dangerous HItter, and you get the feeling that if the rest of the team were as savvy and locked-in as he is at the plate there would be far less a drop off in offensive output due to the diminished power in this year's bats. We always knew Loy could gobble up ground balls, but we didn't know he'd develop into the all-around player that he has become: a brilliant defender and on-base machine with equal ability to help manufacture a run, steal bases, and wait for a pitch to drive.
I'm fine with honoring Tant as the Regional MVP... But for my money the most valuable player on the team is Brandon Loy.
Pressure, pressure, pressure. As mentioned above, never has the college baseball landscape been more suited to reward Augie Garrido's preferred strategy, and in no game that I have personally attended has his team's execution of that strategy been better than it was today. Moreover, setting aside the efficacy of the approach broadly speaking, it absolutely must be noted how badly (and smartly) Garrido abused Kent State catcher David Lyon, a prolific power hitter with no real ability to control the basepaths defensively. Garrido noticed, and Garrido took advantage. Texas stole two bases and bunted without any real fear that a bunt would lead to the loss of the lead runner.
Again, whether Garrido's approach is always ideal, the way that he manhandled Kent State today was a thing of beauty, in each and every thing that he did -- from the use of his pitchers to the pressure he put on Lyon and Kent State to stop us from manufacturing runs. Not only was that an appropriate challenge to impose upon the Golden Flashes, but it seemed to bolster the play of Texas's own players, as well.
Put another way: If Augie Garrido ever were to choose a single game tape to demonstrate everything he believes in as a teacher, team-leader, and game-manager, he'd be hard pressed to find a more exemplary game than Monday's win over Kent State. Texas dominated the contest not through power or overwhelming talent, but by the imposition of impeccably executed pressure-generating team baseball.
Comparative Advantages: The Defense. It wasn't so long ago that you could sort the advantages of the top teams fairly easily by their advantages in the line up -- like when, say, a team had Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff, as did the '96 Hurricanes. Certainly, pitching has always mattered as least as much, as the Longhorns' 2002 and '05 title-winning teams made clear, but the differences on the non-offensive margins matter more than ever, and while this Texas staff compares favorably to some of its most successful predecessors, we probably don't spend enough time talking about how strong this team is defensively.
The most interesting thing that Princeton's manager said after Friday night's UT win was not about the way Texas manufactured runs, but when he said, essentially: "The thing that separates our teams the most is in the way that their athletic advantage helps them turn balls into outs that our guys probably wouldn't."
Not only is that right with regards to Texas vs Princeton, but it's one of the reasons that Texas won Monday's game against Kent State 5-0. Not only did UT's offensive pressure have an effect on Kent State's defense, but the Longhorns' defense was utterly supreme throughout, and a huge reason why the pressure on the Golden Flashes only increased as the game went on; instead of being down one run, they were down two, and then three, and so on. As was described above, Texas even erased its lone mistake on defense with a terrific catch-and-swipe by the same player (Loy) whose error had allowed the base runner to reach at all.
Watching from the stands this afternoon, Texas's advantage was clear in a way that wasn't obvious from listening to the previous games with Kent State on the radio. Kent State was better filled with power hitters that could have knocked Texas from the NCAA Tournament much as they shockingly knocked Taylor Jungmann from Saturday night's game. But Texas was the team primed to win any game in which they could prevent Kent State from getting any such big hit.
On Saturday night, Kent State got the grand slam, and the win. Without that big hit, Texas's speed, athleticism, and defense were dominant advantages. That, as much as anything, was on clear display this afternoon at the Disch in the way that Texas dominated the game: the Longhorns were able to create production against the Kent State defense, while simultaneously forcing Kent State to score via the big hit.
It never came. And Texas won the Regional.
Onward towards Omaha. The post-game interview between Bill Little and Augie Garrido was fantastic as a summation of what made today's win so special. On the one hand, you had Little -- who (to my great discomfort) was talking about the game as a win as early as the 7th inning -- trying after the victory to get Garrido to chalk it up to a consummation of what the team had learned in Oklahoma City.
On the other hand, there was Garrido, flatly rejecting Little's premise that his baseball team's momentum could be reduced to a improvement upon its most recent past experience, while at the same time insisting that the team's clutch Regional comeback was a reflection of improved team character, dedication, cohesiveness, and morale.
"No, no, no, Bill, it's not as simple as a set of intangibles. This was a reflection of a set of intangibles."
What's great is that they were both saying variations on the same same thing, but after today's win it really was hard to choose any single factor as dispositive. Bill Little chose "improved based on previous post-season tournament experience," and Augie responded by (properly) rejecting that explanation as incomplete, while simultaneously offering an equally insufficient explanation of his own -- based on vaguely defined notions of team focus and want-to.
In truth, this Texas team has proven itself to be all of these things. Notwithstanding anything said here or in the post-game interview between Little or Garrido, nothing in what we saw from Texas in Oklahoma City or the Austin Regional is predictive of how the team will perform next weekend and beyond. What we've seen from this team recently, however, indicates that greatness is possible, and after you finish parsing all the words, I think that's what we're all trying to say.
Whether this year's team will or won't is anyone's guess and can't be reduced to any neat explanation, but as far as that goes the one thing we know for sure is that to the extent it comes down to such things, Texas couldn't have done any better today... and couldn't ask for a better manager than Augie Garrido.
Hook 'em! Let's get to Omaha!