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Weekend Preview and Friday Open Thread: Baylor

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One of the coolest traditions surrounding Texas baseball is the three-way arrangement the Longhorns have with Baylor and the Aggies. For those of you who haven't followed the hardball team so closely in years past, here's how it works: this weekend, Texas will play two ballgames at Waco before finishing the series at home. Then, in their final series of the regular season, the Longhorns will travel to College Station for the Friday night game against A&M and then head back to Austin for the Saturday and Sunday games. When Baylor and A&M meet, they'll play one game in Waco and two in College Station. This way, all three schools get the same number of home games as they would otherwise, but all three home fans get to see at least one game of each rivalry every year. So, even though this would appropriately be classified a "road" series, Austinites can catch the Longhorns and Bears in the Sunday game this weekend.

First thing's first: to answer the question probably foremost on your mind, Baylor does charge for access to media on their website. So while you won't be able to watch the first two games without a subscription, you can watch the Sunday game in Austin for free on Texas Sports as always. After the jump, a look at the Bears.

Unusually, Baylor comes into the weekend unranked. This is usually a clash of titans--though the burnt orange titan has gotten the best of the green and gold one lately. Baylor comes in looking not only to break a seven-game regular season losing streak against the Horns, but also to get their first W in the series in Waco since 2005. That's right, folks: it's been six years since the Bears have managed to take down Texas on their own home field. (That was fun to type). However, this weekend will be played on the precipice of a big moment in the series' history: should Baylor get one win, it will be their 100th all time against Texas. Of course, if Texas gets the sweep, it will bring the Horns' total to 230. Which is a nice, round number.

On to the actual 2011 Bears! This is a team that comes into the weekend limping a little bit. They have lost six of their last eight contests, including losing a series to Kansas in Lawrence 2-1 and a pair of midweek losses to Lamar and Sam Houston State. Now, we have made it very clear that we put very little stock in midweek games because the little guy is throwing everything he's got at the big boy, while a team like Baylor is just looking to get some innings for young arms and some at-bats for its hitters. Still, when you're struggling it can feel like those losses are part of a spiral--so they're not totally insignificant from a psychological perspective. If the most important six inches in baseball are the ones between your ears, Baylor has to be at least a little worried. On the other hand, in their most recent game that mattered they did find their bats, jumping all over Kansas to salvage the Sunday game 12-4.

In that one, the Bears flexed some muscle in poking four dingers out of Hoglund Ballpark. So when they're on, Baylor does have some pop and can knock the ball around some. However, it should be noted that the Jayhawks' Sunday starter Alex Cox dropped to 0-3 with the 3.1 inning outing, and opposing hitters are batting .299 against him. By way of comparison, despite some struggles Texas' Cole Green is only allowing hitters to bat .219 against him. It's unlikely Baylor will be able to treat Green with such disdain, especially in the cavernous confines of the Disch.

Meanwhile, as the Statesman reports, Texas has found an offense in the last four games. This weekend will be crucial in determining whether this team has indeed discovered a new offensive identity or if the recent hot streak is a blip on the radar screen. We tend to think it's the former; the hoped-for narrative at the beginning of the season was that the offense would eventually catch up to the pitching and defense to make this a championship-calibur team, and now that it looks like they may be heading that direction skepticism would seem silly. And to be fair, as we noted in our midseason review, adjusted for the drop in national offense wrought by the new bats this Texas team has actually been pretty good offensively on the whole anyway. If this uptick continues? Watch out, Omaha.

The Longhorn bats will be facing a Baylor pitching staff that has struggled of late. The starters' ERAs climb by the day: Friday pitcher Logan Verrett sports a 3.53, Saturday's Josh Turley is at 4.26, and Sunday starter Trent Blank--despite a solid performance in Lawrence--sits at an unsettling 5.56. Baylor's great teams of the last few years have usually featured at least one dominant pitcher, and that seems to be a huge part of what this incarnation of the Bears is missing.The bullpen has also been somewhat touch-and-go; as Exhibit A, two relievers combined to hit the first batter of the ninth inning (who represented the winning run) and then walk the bases loaded to score him in game two against the Jayhawks.

The Baylor offense is led by sophomore first baseman Max Muncy. Usually filling the #2 slot in the order, he's hitting at a .333 clip and, more importantly, gets on base at .436. Along with leadoff hitter Brooks Pinckard (.397 OBP) and three-hole hitter Joey Hainsfurther (.416), Muncy serves as a solid table-setter. The problem is, after those first three the Bears don't have a whole lot to clean up after them. Baylor shouldn't be able to do much against the Texas arms with the bottom of their order, so as long as the Longhorns don't let the top beat them they'll have a good chance to win all three games. A sweep would be great; two of three should be expected.

This is your open thread for the Friday game. Hook 'em!

PROBABLE PITCHING MATCHUPS (From Texas Sports)
Friday, April 8, 2011 - 6:30 p.m. Central
Texas: RHP Taylor Jungmann (6-0, 0.94 ERA)
Baylor: RHP Logan Verrett (3-2, 3.53 ERA)

Saturday, April 9, 2011 - 3 p.m. Central
Texas: LHP Hoby Milner (3-1, 2.35 ERA)
Baylor: LHP Josh Turley (1-1, 4.26 ERA)

Sunday,  April 10, 2011 - 1 p.m. Central
Texas: RHP Cole Green (2-2, 3.27 ERA)
Baylor: RHP Trent Blank (2-1, 5.56 ERA)