Texas hosted the Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors in Austin over the weekend, and did what they set out to do by taking the series three games to one. That brings the Longhorns' record to 13-4 on the season, with only a road game tomorrow night at Texas State standing between them and the Big 12 schedule. Boyd's World RPI has Texas at #5 in the nation as of now, although that number is essentially meaningless this early in the season. Case in point: the rankings have Dartmouth at #1 and Memphis #2. Still, it's encouraging from a pure wins & losses perspective that Texas is nearly halfway to its win total from a year ago and conference play hasn't even begun.
With the weekend series victory, Texas has now won eight of its last nine games and 12 of 14 since starting the year 0-2 at California. It's clear the Texas pitching staff has the ability to turn the lights out on opponents, and the defense of this young team is steadily improving. But in our season preview, I noted that at this point in the season I wanted to see not only more wins than last year, but signs of marked improvement on offense. On that front, the jury is still very much out on the 2014 Longhorns.
During those last nine games, of which Texas has won eight, the final scores have been: 2-1, 2-0, 3-2, 3-2, 7-1, 3-2, 1-6, 3-2, 4-1. That seven-run game came against Valparaiso, and the four-run outburst on Sunday came against Hawai'i's number four starter. In other words, despite the very good won-lost record, in the last nine games Texas has not managed more than three runs against a pitcher who would be a weekend starter for just about any Big 12 squad. I'm not suggesting there have been no indications of improved offense this season, but the only one that matters is runs scored.
In 2013, Texas averaged 3.84 runs per game. Through 17 games this year, they are averaging four exactly. That's a step up, but the trend is downward; i.e., most of Texas' games in which they scored more than four happened before February 25. So, like I said: the jury is out.
The good news is, to the extent the offense needs to improve, it clearly doesn't need to improve much. As always with Augie Garrido's Texas teams, this year's club is designed to beat you efficiently and ruthlessly on the mound. Friday night, Parker French gave up two runs in the top of the first inning (one unearned) and then shut the Warriors down for the next 6.1, giving way to Travis Dukes and John Curtiss for the final 1.2. The Longhorns won 3-2 in a game that took only two hours and 17 minutes. The 6-1 loss in game two was just a seven-inning contest, but Texas' rain-lengthened 3-2 victory in game three with Nathan Thornhill getting the ball involved only 2:18 of game time. The weekend wrapped with a much longer 2:24 affair, with Lukas Schiraldi and a platoon of relievers shutting Hawai'i down again. Baseball games aren't supposed to be that short, that consistently; but when the Longhorn pitching staff is on its game, expect quick-and-dirty to be the norm.
That's not to say the pitching was perfect this weekend. Hawai'i actually scored first in all four games before the starters settled in. In Dillon Peters' case, the game two starter was unable to get comfortable until the game was basically out of reach with Hawai'i up 6-0, though only four of those runs were earned. That contest was easily the most worrying of the weekend: not only was Peters less than himself, but there was a truly awful defensive play and the offense only managed two hits in the seven-inning ballgame. As for that one defensive play, I'll just let the TexasSports.com play-by-play describe it to you: Hanawahine,K reached on a throwing error by p, SAC, bunt, advanced to second (0-0); Baldwin, A. advanced to third, scored on a throwing error by 1b, unearned; George, C. scored, unearned.
So that happened. But the Longhorns made up for it by finishing the weekend on their strongest performance of the four games. The good vibes actually started on Sunday with the completion of game three, which was suspended due to weather in the top of the eighth on Saturday. Texas plated the winning run in the bottom of the frame on a clutch two-out single up the middle by Kasey Clemens.
In game four, despite falling behind early again, Texas essentially dominated the Rainbow Warriors. Hawai'i took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third, but the Longhorns quickly answered in the bottom of the inning with the a bit of small ball: they plated two runs with the ball leaving the infield only once. Mark Payton drew a leadoff walk, stole second, and advanced to third on a single to left by CJ Hinojosa. Jacob Felts executed the squeeze beautifully to score Payton and tie the game, and as an added bonus Hawai'i tried to get Payton at home so Felts was safe at first as well. It should be noted, of course, that with runners at the corners an nobody out, Texas' cleanup hitter laid down a bunt. But, in this instance, it worked.
So well, in fact, that the five-hole hitter Ben Johnson followed it up with a bunt of his own, which he legged out for an infield single. Attempting to make the close play, the Hawai'i third baseman threw the ball away and allowed Hinojosa to score. Andy McGuire then made it three bunts in a row with a sacrifice, and the rally died with a strikeout, a walk, and a bases-loaded groundout. Hinojosa tackled on a two-RBI single in the sixth to essentially put the game on ice for Texas.
That third inning, though, is a microcosm of how Augie Garrido likes to do things (the sixth could actually also be used as an example, but the third was special with its three bunts in a row). Some decry small ball as a vestige of conventional baseball wisdom that should be no more widely used than the single wing in football--and I happen to agree in most cases. But Augieball is different. Augieball is a strategy so reliant on small ball that it goes further than traditional baseball wisdom. Connie Mack would not have bunted his cleanup hitter with me on the corners and no out. He would not have then followed that up with another bunt with two on and none out and his five-hole hitter up. He would not then have ordered yet another sacrifice bunt with two men in, two men on, and a rally starting. And he certainly would not have ordered said sacrifice bunt from his #6 hitter in an effort to set up his 7-8-9 guys to deliver the base hits that he just made more precious and vital by willfully giving up an out.
But Augieball, unlike traditional baseball strategy and very much unlike modern, sabermetrics-based baseball strategy, does not care who is batting. It does not care who is on base. It formulaically relies on the bunt and the stolen base to create scoring chances. It probably turns some 5-run innings into 2-run innings, and just as probably turns some 0-run innings into 1-run innings. Does it all come out in the wash? It's hard to say. What it definitely does is put pressure on the defense and send the message to Augie's team that he has essentially equal confidence in each guy in the lineup. I'm not saying Augieball is definitely the right way or the wrong way. Only that it is, and will be as long as Augie is. #zenmaster
Texas' final tuneup is tomorrow in San Marcos against the Bobcats, followed by a chance to get their first conference series win since 2012 (not a typo) when KU comes to Austin this weekend. Hook 'em!