Texas came into last week at 3-3 in the Big 12 and facing a crossroads. Continue the momentum of their first conference series win since 2012, or regress back to the not-quite-enough status that has frustrated fans for the better part of two years. The Longhorns got off to an encouraging start Tuesday with a win over the rival Rice Owls, clinching the season series with their second victory over RU in Houston.
Friday night came around, and Texas kept the good mojo going with some high drama in the ninth inning. The 5-4 victory launched Texas toward a weekend sweep, with a 6-3 win on Saturday and a 4-0 decision Sunday. In Saturday's Game Two, Dillon Peters returned to form after a rough outing last week in Lubbock. The junior out of Indianapolis allowed six hits over six innings, limiting the Bears to three runs (two earned) and fanning nine. Peters could probably afford to be a bit more economical, as his 100 pitches is an awfully high number to get 18 outs. On the other hand, by their nature strikeouts require more pitches than outs on balls in play, and I won't sit here and criticize a guy who got half his outs on K's. That's intimidation, homes.
Especially when compared to his counterpart, Austin Stone, who came in as Baylor's most accomplished hurler. Stone threw 98 pitches while also going six innings, but in his case it wasn't because he was striking so many guys out. Texas got to him for four runs, all earned, on eight hits and a pair of walks.
The game was unnecessarily close late, as Baylor's one unearned run in the second inning came on an inexplicable play by Texas left fielder Ben Johnson. With the bases loaded and one out, Baylor's Ben Carl hit a short fly ball to Johnson that no one in the ballpark thought could possibly be deep enough to score the run. Johnson nevertheless uncorked a seemingly frantic throw to the plate after hauling the ball in, despite the fact that the Baylor runner was staying put--he, like everyone else, knew the ball wasn't deep enough to attempt to score. Johnson's throw sailed over the head of catcher Tres Barrera, and Peters--who probably should have been backing up home plate but who cam be forgiven for not expecting a throw--was unable to get to the ball fast enough to make a play at home.
Momentary lapse in judgment aside, though, Texas looked great on Saturday. The aforementioned Barrera, whose emergence as a hitter has been the story of the last several weeks, had a pair of doubles to go with two-baggers from Kacy Clemens and Madison Carter. And for the second straight day, the Longhorns showed a level of competence and mental toughness at the plate that has been missing for two years; after Baylor came within one run at 4-3 in the top of the seventh, Texas promptly put together a two-run inning of their own in the bottom of the frame to extend the lead back out to the final margin of 6-3.
Sunday's series finale continued Nathan Thornhill's march toward sneakily becoming the best Texas pitcher in lord knows how long. He put up yet another goose egg in the Longhorns' 4-0 victory, and did it in utterly dominating fashion. Thornhill allowed only two Baylor hits and two walks over eight innings of work, facing just two over the minimum thanks to a double play and a Baylor runner caught stealing by Barrera. The performance brought his ERA down to a ridiculous 0.73, while Texas' position players provided error-free defense and just enough offense to cruise to the sweep. Barrera continued his violent assault on baseballs everywhere with a two-run double in the seventh that brought Texas' lead to 3-0 but, with Thornhill dealing, may as well have been 20-0.
Texas has now won 11 of 12 since dropping the conference-opening series at home to Kansas. The Longhorns are 26-7 overall, ranked #1 in the Boyd's World ISR and #5 in the RPI. They hold a one-game lead in the Big 12 standings over 5-4 Oklahoma State, Kansas, and TCU, and a percentage points lead over 4-2 OU. Having an odd number of teams in the league makes following the standings as the season progresses somewhat difficult, as the league leaders have not necessarily played the same number of games.
What does this mean? It means that, at this particular moment, the indicators are good that Augie Garrido has righted the ship and Texas is back to its proper place in the world. But with four teams nipping at their heels, Texas can also easily fall off the edge with a couple of bad weekends. It's far too early to know whether 2014 will ultimately be a success or a failure, but it can at least be said with confidence that this squad has put itself in a position to succeed. In the second week of April, that's all any team can hope for.
The third and final game against Rice is tomorrow night in Austin, while the Horns continue the conference slate at Oklahoma this weekend. Here's hoping they keep it rolling.