BON:. Texas fans trying to convince themselves that Houston isn't really as dominant as it looked on Monday will point to LSU's weak bullpen and inconsistent hitting. How much of that destruction of the Tigers on their home field was due to Houston putting it all together, and how much to the Cougars taking advantage of LSU's weaknesses?
Jeremy Branham: I think it's fair to say that Houston isn't dominant, but a team doesn't win 48 games and have the #2 RPI in the nation by accident. Certainly Houston got to LSU's bullpen, but they did the brunt of their damage against the starter Alden Cartwright, who pitched 4 shutout innings in the SEC title game against Florida, and Parker Bugg, who still has an era under 3. I believe it was a combination of Houston taking advantage of some of the LSU weaknesses, but that's a sign of a good team.
BON: Not only do these teams appear to be evenly matched, but they are also strength-vs-strength with each team built on pitching and defense. Texas will run out Nathan Thornhill, Parker French, and Chad Hollingsworth if necessary against (I assume) Jake Lemoine, Aaron Garza, and David Longville. Which of those potential pitching matchups best suits Houston, and which most worries you?
JB: Todd Whitting, the Houston coach, has yet to set the rotation so I can't speak to the overall pitching matchups. I think for Cougar fans looking at the Texas rotation there are some impressive numbers, so that would be a concern: how will runs be scored all series long? The Longhorn bullpen has been very good too, so if any of the Texas starters go deep into games, runs will be at a premium. As far as the Cougars' staff is concerned, it's a staff that pitches to contact. If the defense doesn't play well around the staff, that can be a concern. When Texas beat Houston earlier this season at Minute Maid, it was a 3-2 game with only 2 of the 5 runs total earned. Whoever plays the best defense will probably advance to Omaha.
BON: It's obvious that Texas fans should be concerned about Casey Grayson, Kyle Survance, and Justin Montemayor when Houston is batting. Who in the lineup should worry us more than his numbers would indicate?
JB: Aside from the three players you mentioned, there isn't anyone in the Houston lineup that will wow you. It's a gritty lineup that doesn't produce many easy outs. They make pitchers work, whether it's going deep into counts, fouling off a lot of pitches, putting the pressure on the defense with bunts, or using the run game. To answer your question more directly, Frankie Ratcliff is a player that can change the game offensively; he's battled through injuries this season and had a better season last year statistically, but he is someone that brings confidence to the plate. Josh Vidales is a player I think has been unlucky this season in terms of average with balls put into play. Vidales walks a lot, sees a lot of pitches and doesn't strike out much, but his average isn't as high as it should be thanks to some misfortune in my opinion. He was also the MOP in the American Conference Championship so when he's hot he can be as good a table setter as you can find.
BON: What has changed for the Cougars since the 3-2 Texas win in the Houston College Classic?
JB: Not a lot has changed to be honest with you. In that game, they played poor defense with four errors. I don't think it was because they were a bad defensive team at that point, but rather it was just one of those days where they played poor defensively. I think what you saw from Houston in that game is about what they are with the exception of the poor D that day. Good pitching, scatter around some hits, battled to the very end, but better defensively than what they showed.
BON: How do you see the series playing out? No results prediction is necessary (go for it if you wish), but I mostly mean to ask whether you agree with the conventional wisdom that we're in for two or three pitcher's duels or if you think one or both offenses may surprise folks.
JB: Predicting baseball is so difficult, especially postseason baseball. I would have never predicted a 12-2 Houston win over LSU in the Monday Regional Championship Game, especially after LSU took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. It seems like so often when you think the game is going to go one way, it'll go the opposite. Everything I keep hearing is, as I said above, whichever team plays better defense will win the series. That's true, but I believe it's more about which offense puts more pressure on the opposing defense. Who will lay down the perfect bunt that leads to a throwing error? Which team executes the hit and run at the perfect time? Who steals a run with great strategy? These teams are so even that every little thing is going to matter, and in my opinion will determine the outcome of the series.
BON: I think you've nailed it. Thanks so much for your time, Jeremy, and enjoy your trip to the Disch.