The Texas Longhorns baseball team, triumphant from its successful regional in Houston, returns to Austin today to take on...Houston. With that that fun sentence is out of the way we can delve a little deeper into the Houston Cougars and talk a little about what to expect for the coming series.
Houston enters Austin after one of the more impressive regional victories of the entire tournament. Houston could have been a regional host but instead was relegated to playing a red hot LSU team in Baton Rouge. Before Sunday's game against Houston, LSU had outscored its previous 10 opponents 100-13. Needless to say it was 10-0 in that stretch, had three shutouts and had only given up multiple runs in three of those games.
Houston needed extra innings to take out the 3-seed Bryant Bulldogs on Friday before LSU ace Aaron Nola shut down the Cougars in the regional's second game. Houston took advantage of six errors by Southeastern Louisiana for a 9-5 win to set up a rematch with LSU.
Enter Sunday night's game. LSU jumped out to 1-0 lead in the 2nd inning and stretched it to 4-0 after 7. LSU removed starting pitcher Kyle Bouman after the 6th and only 64 pitches. The Tigers bullpen gave up four runs in the 8th and another in the 11th for a shocking 5-4 win. LSU jumped ahead to a 2-0 lead after the first half inning on Monday but Houston replied with a pair of runs in the bottom half and seven runs in the 3rd while cruising to an 12-2 victory.
All in all it was a shocking victory over the Tigers but also one in which the Cougars played to their own strength (pitching) while exposing the deep flaws in LSU's one real weakness (its bullpen). It's fairly safe to say that had Bryant, Southeastern Louisiana and LSU played perfect defense then we wouldn't be seeing the Coogs this weekend. Houston scored more earned runs than its opponent in only one of the four games it won in Baton Rouge. Taking advantage of inferior defenders at the college level is a huge part of the college game, so that shouldn't be taken as a critique of how Houston got here. They pitched reasonably well and let their opponents hang themselves.
Houston is a familiar foe in more ways than one.
Obviously Texas played (and beat) Houston way back in early March in the Houston College Classic. The difference that day was defense as both teams got only one earned run though Texas managed a pair of unearned runs in the 3-2 victory. That Texas lineup featured Kacy Clemens hitting cleanup followed by Andy McGuire and Jeremy Montalbano, so the Texas team the Cougars will see is pretty different from that one.
Houston is also familiar because they look a helluva lot like Texas on the stat sheet. Both teams are underrated offensively with six guys batting .275 or better. Both teams start one guy hitting .225 or worse. Both teams have multiple guys who can swipe a bag, although Kyle Survance's 28 for 31 stealing bases is unmatched by Texas. Survance jumps out of the stat sheet (.320 BA, .823 OPS) as the biggest offensive threat for the Cougars, though he's also second on the team in strikeouts.
Both teams have multiple strong relievers who can throw several innings of relief if called upon, though Houston's second most reliable reliever, Jared Robinson, threw an incredible 191 pitches in Baton Rouge and may not be available this weekend. Houston's got more strong relievers and a better team ERA but Texas has three prospective starting pitchers with better numbers than their counterparts. Texas has slightly more power (.359 slugging % to .355 and 20 home runs to 17) while Houston's opponents have hit for considerably more power (.311 slugging % and 25 home runs for Houston opponents to .274 and 6 homers for Texas pitchers).
Finally, Houston is familiar because it's built almost identical to a TCU team that came into Austin and swept a trio of hotly contested games. They hit slightly better than the Horned Frogs but don't pitch quite as well. They don't have anybody quite like TCU ace Brandon Finnegan, a strikeout machine that won't walk anybody, though they won't be walking a ton of hitters. Texas is going to have to play well to beat this team two of three.
The Cougars played a mixed bag schedule with many good and many bad teams. The Cougars played 18 games (11-7 record) against teams in the top 50 of ISR, including a sweep of Super Regional team College of Charleston, sweeping Rice in three midweek games and individual wins over Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Houston also got beat by TCU, Texas, Southern California and Pepperdine in individual games while dropping three of four to Louisville and splitting two games with Sam Houston State. In addition to those high quality opponents, Houston played 34 games against teams ranked outside of the top 100 in ISR, going 27-7. That includes 11 games (9-2 record) against teams ranked 175th or worse.
Texas, by contrast, played 32 games against teams in the top 50 of ISR, going 16-16. Texas only played 9 games against teams outside of the top 100 in ISR and went 8-1. The Horns also played four midweek games against teams outside of the top 175 and went 4-0.
Texas will have to play good defense, continue to pitch well and take advantage of a few opportunities every game. Texas has largely played one good game, one toss up game and one bad game every series outside of the TCU series. Sometimes they've won the toss up game (Regional against Rice), sometimes they've won the bad game (Friday walk off vs. Baylor), and they've rarely lost when playing well.
The Horns vanquished Texas A&M, Rice and over two seasons of people questioning whether Augie Garrido could ever make Texas baseball relevant again in one fell swoop last weekend. As a fan who gets to blog about Texas baseball, it feels like the Horns are playing with house money.
Augie may eventually go the way of Mack or he may blaze his own trail but it won't be in 2014 unless that's what Augie wants. The season is a success and now we all get to find out just how high this team's ceiling is. Can they hit the ball a bit better at home, continue to pitch well and beat a really good Houston team? Will the 35th appearance of the University of Texas at Omaha be among the most unlikely?
We'll find out this weekend. First pitch today as at 3 PM and it'll be
Parker French Nathan Thornhill on the mound for Texas. Houston will be the home team today and Sunday (if needed). Game is on ESPN2 today and ESPN the rest of the way. This'll be your open thread.