As noted on Tuesday, the Longhorns have won the Big 12 championship in baseball and can, with just two more wins (they close the season with a three-game set against Missouri) set the Texas season record for most conference wins. For such a young team, it's been a terrific season, and the group has steadily improved all year long. Back in the early season, we warned fans not to panic at the lukewarm start by this team, though there were some legitimate concerns.
There are lessons in here, kids. "Small ball" has this sexy aura about it, but it's really a misguided offensive strategy. At some point, you need to rake extra base hits. It's fine to win with pitching and defense, but the Horns aren't going to Omaha if they slug .381. Or get on base at such a low clip.
Fast forward to today, and the Horns' batters have raised those averages to where they need to be. The OBP (.385) is right where the 2005 team was, and the SLG has jumped up to .442, also where the 2005 team finished up. That both numbers are virtually identical is both interesting and encouraging, as Texas relied on a lot more new hitters this year than last year. In short: the new guys have steadily improved as the year has progressed. The Horns are once again getting on base at a good clip, and the power has developed nicely to boot.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff has solidified extremely well. The biggest question mark for Augie this year was the bullpen. Counting on a lot more new guys, the Horns had to sort things out with trial and error. Austin Wood has emerged as a bulldog at the back of the bullpen, while the Texas coaches deserve a lot of credit for being willing to use any number of different pitchers late in close games depending on the situation. In some senses, the Texas bullpen has benefited from not having a "go-to" closer; it's allowed Gaurido to mix in a number of guys in critical situations.
The biggest problem for Texas pitchers has been walks, as they've offered opponents 197 free passes in 470 innings of work (almost 4 per 9 IP). That's too many, and as the Horns enter the postseason, where the better hitting teams remain, they'll have to slim that margin. Sometimes you give up home runs; it happens. But it's devastating when the solo homer becomes a two, or three, run job because of free passes.
The Horns won last year's championship on pitching and defense. They still have a solid group of pitchers, and the defense has steadily improved as the year has progressed. The cause for great optimism, though, is the steady development of the young hitters. We knew Drew Stubbs was going to paste the ball, but Kyle Russell, Carson Kainer, and Jordan Danks have all been terrific, too. Danks is out with an ankle injury, but hopes to make it back in time for post-season play.