OK, sports fans. I was as bummed as anyone when Texas gave up a massive run in the first half to Michigan, basically sealing their hoops fate in a season that gave us much more enjoyment than anyone expected back in November. The flip side, though, is that our energies as Texas fans can now shift entirely to baseball (and recruiting, obviously, because FOOTBALL). Of course, it's up to the team whether that shift is a positive or negative in terms of fun.
We stated in our season previews that, for us to believe Augie Garrido should hang onto his job, Texas would have to not only win more often but also show signs of real improvement on offense. We weren't expecting a sudden burst of home runs, as that would be unrealistic for two reasons: first, it would be completely out of character. Second, this particular era in college baseball is defined by dead bats and dead balls, and with the dimensions of Disch-Falk Field long balls were already hard to come by in the Gorillaball Era. What we wanted to see, rather, was merely some signs of basic competence at the plate--something that has been lacking for the last couple of seasons.
One of the factors that made us think that might happen was the influx of young hitting talent. And sure enough, to the extent there has been improvement, some of that is indeed due to production from newcomers like Tres Barrera and Kacy Clemens, and the maturation of sophomores like Ben Johnson and CJ Hinojosa. But the jury is still very much out on whether Texas can actually score runs any better than they did in 2013 against top-tier pitching.
Which brings us to this past week, and what to make of it. The Longhorns responded admirably to the disappointment of losing their first conference series of the season, a very winnable home set against Kansas. Tuesday they pounded Dallas Baptist 5-0, then swept the weekend against Columbia with nary a close game: 7-3, 6-1, and 11-0. That keeps the Longhorns in the top 25, and brings their record to a very good 19-6.
But really, there was nothing Texas could have done this week to fully erase the Kansas series. It remains the case that Texas has not won a conference series since 2012. In Garrido's postgame LHN interview after the Game Three loss to the Jayhawks, he acknowledged that it made 13 straight conference series losses "for those who are enjoying that." It struck me as unnecessarily defensive and kind of problematic. So, Coach, are you saying the problem isn't that you haven't figured out a way to win a series in a weak conference in nearly two years, but rather that some people have pointed that failure out? It was reminiscent of the autumn uproar when Mack Brown stated the football team's struggles were a chance to see "who our friends are."
The obsession over whether people are nice to you while you are failing is a classic example of missing the point. But Augie's comments also remind me of Mack in a different kind of deja vu--the sinking feeling when you realize a coach you have come to really love as the face of the Longhorns just isn't very likely to get things back on track and will likely have to be replaced.
Now, obviously, Augie's fate is not yet sealed. He has, once again, one of the top pitching staffs in America. The team ERA is 1.92. You read that correctly; the team ERA is below 2, which is completely unheard of. And unlike last season, he has hitters who have at least shown the ability to put up some runs against lesser competition, albeit not as consistently as I would like. But I don't recall (too lazy to look it up) a single week in 2013 where Texas played four games and scored at least five runs in each.
Still, even as the freshmen have begun adjusting to the college game, the team batting average so far is actually seven points lower than last year's. Two guys who have started a lot of games are well below the Mendoza Line, although with his .119 average freshman Andy McGuire has not started since a single game in the KU series. The idea that the hitting depth has somehow improved is effectively shot down by the fact that Garrido felt the need against Kansas to insert a pitcher, Ty Culbreth, into the DH spot.
The upshot of all this is that, 25 games into the season but only three into the Big 12 season, the jury is very much out on whether 2014 will be a success--and, by extension, whether Garrido's job is safe. This coming weekend against a ranked Texas Tech squad in Lubbock is absolutely huge--especially after the Raiders just took two of three from TCU, with the two wins by a combined score of 48-4.* If Texas can go on the road and get a series win, they're arguably back on track to contend in the conference. If not, and they slip to 2-4 or even 1-5 in Big 12 play, they will have only 18 games remaining to climb back into the race. And there won't exactly be reason to believe they have it in them.
*Not really, but it was a lot.
Two of the three games against Tech will be telecast on the Fox Sports system--Friday night on Fox College Sports and Sunday on Fox Sports Southwest. It's an opportunity to see your only remaining active major-sport Longhorn squad in what is essentially a do-or-die series. And an opportunity to see some really fantastic pitchers wearing burnt orange. The season depends on whether their teammates can provide them any help.