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Longhorns Finally Win Conference Series

In what was essentially a do-or-die series, Texas came through with a huge extra-innings win in the rubber game in Lubbock to move to 3-3 in the conference.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Texas came into this past weekend at 20-6 on the season but only 1-2 in the Big 12. There were reasons to believe the 2014 Longhorns may be improved over the disastrous 2013 version, but in their Big 12 opener at home against Kansas they were little more than a nightmarish flashback. The pitching held the Jayhawks in check, just as it had done to all comers last year, only to see the offense be so magnificently inept that KU walked out of the Disch with two wins anyway.

The refrain Jeff and I have been repeating over and over this season is that Texas not only needs to find a way to win more this season, but they need to do so in a manner that indicates actual growth on the offensive side of the game. By that measure, Texas' 2-1 series win on the road against Tech may be the jump start we have been waiting for. The weekend was not without its questionable managerial decisions from the winningest coach in college baseball history, but Texas scored as many runs in Game Two--their only loss of the series--as they did in the entire three-game set against Kansas. That can only be taken as a good sign.

Perhaps even more encouraging--or discouraging, if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person--was that the Longhorns hit the baseball as well or better than in any three-game stretch in years. The pessimists among us, myself sometimes included, will point out that Texas stranded a village on the base paths in Lubbock; lots of base hits don't mean anything unless they turn into runs. But, in a long season, the more rational approach is probably to be pleased that the Longhorns showed the ability to get the guys on base in the first place, and hope the next step is consistently moving them around to score.

Regardless of whether you want to be an optimist or pessimist about it, though, the Longhorns banged out 44 hits over the three games in Lubbock, the most since their 45-hit performance in Norman in 2012. Perhaps more shocking, the 44 hits included three long balls and were good for 20 runs--though, as alluded to above, it really should have been more than that.  Meanwhile, Texas' team ERA is now 1.98, and that reflects a slight increase from giving up nine earned runs in the Tech series. More amazingly, Texas is 22-3 when scoring two or more runs this season, which illustrates just how little help this pitching staff needs to get the job done.

So all of that gives some reason for good feelings going forward. Texas is 3-3 in the league, 22-7 overall, and sitting at fourth place only a game behind second-place OU and with West Virginia in a weird first-place position due to being only 2-0 in the conference.  The Longhorns are still pitching like a team capable of winning a national championship, and have begun hitting like a regular, competent college baseball team. But they were also agonizingly close to dropping yet another Big 12 series and sitting at 2-4 right now, which would be a terrible blow considering they largely outplayed Tech throughout the weekend.

After splitting the first two games, largely due to an inability to get a hit with me on base combined with Dillon Peters' worst performance of the year on Saturday, Texas got yet another spectacular performance from Nathan Thornhill yesterday.  Thornhill only made it 5.2 innings with 83 pitches, but he held the Red Raiders scoreless and surrendered only four hits. Meanwhile Texas established a 2-0 lead thanks in large part to Ben Johnson, who singled in the first and came around to score on Tres Barrera's two-out RBI single, and then homered in the third.

Texas took its 2-0 lead into the ninth, but it should have been much more comfortable than that. The Longhorns stranded 11 men on base in their nine regulation at-bats, which is...a problem. It became more of a problem when John Curtiss, who for some reason had been sent out to pitch the eighth in an attempt at grabbing a two-inning save, was unable to keep Tech off the board. The Raiders' Alec Humphreys' hit a one-our RBI single with me on the corners to cut the Texas lead to 2-1. After a groundout, and with two strikes on Tech shortstop Tim Proudfoot, Curtiss threw what appeared to be an obvious game-winning strike three, right down the middle.

But pinch runner Zach Davis was attempting a straight steal of home, forcing Barrera to lunge out in front of the plate to catch the pitch from Curtiss and attempt to make the tag. The home plate umpire called Davis safe, and apparently also called the pitch a ball. Which, under the circumstances, was probably the right decision even if not technically correct; had Proudfoot swung, he'd have clunked Barrera in the head with a metal club--which would not only have been catcher's interference and resulted in a run anyway, but also may well have serious injured the freshman catcher. The umpire, then, was probably right not to penalize Proudfoot for his basic human decency. Proudfoot proceeded to do the decent thing again by striking out.

Curtiss remained on the hill for Texas through three extra innings, working out of trouble in the bottom of the tenth and eleventh.  In the top of the twelfth, Collin Shaw got things rolling with a leadoff walk and was sacrificed to second by Zane Gurwitz. CJ Hinojosa, who has struggled although he had three hits to that point yesterday, poked a 1-2 pitch to the second baseman which at least moved Shaw over to third with two away. Alex Silver--whose earlier insertion to pinch hit for Kacy Clemens was another questionable decision by Augie--drew a four-pitch walk to bring up Madison Carter.

Carter pounded a ground ball through the right side to score Shaw, and Tech's right fielder ran clear past the ball for an error that compounded the Red Raiders' misfortune. Silver scored all the way from first to make it a 4-2 game, leaving Carter standing on third base. Brooks Marlow followed with a spectacular at-bat, fouling off four straight pitches before holding off and taking ball three to work the count full. He then singled in Carter for some insurance, and Curtiss closed it out to pick up both a blown save and a win with 82 pitches.

So ends the unfathomable streak of Texas Big 12 conference series losses at 14. Hopefully with this psychological monkey off their backs, the Longhorns will keep the ball rolling against Baylor next weekend and jump into the thick of the Big 12 title race. There's still time for the season to go south, but for this week the trend is positive. Rice in Houston tomorrow night then the Bears at home this weekend. Hook 'em!