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Texas Baseball Roundtable and West Virginia Open Thread

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Texas begins conference play today versus West Virginia. It'll be the first conference series for Texas and first three game series of the year. To celebrate we decided to chat Texas baseball, roundtable style.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Our participants today are the esteemed Michael Pelech, Wescott Eberts, Abram Orlansky and Jeff Asher talking Texas baseball and whatever else may come up (okay, just Texas baseball).

Quesiton 1: Four weekends in, how are you feeling about Texas baseball?

Michael: I'm quite the optimist, so be surprised when I say: I'm feeling pretty good. I think the bats are performing as we all expected, and relief pitching has been as solid as we'd hoped, and the starting rotation is turning out to not be a weak point. And given the fact that results have gone as planned up to this point (aside from the whacky, cold, ugly 2-gamer against USD), I feel like things are right on track.

Wescott: The two losses to San Diego and split with Stanford perhaps dimmed some of the optimism that existed after the fast start that had Augie Garrido comparing the current group to the 2005 national championship squad, but the pieces are starting to come together. Left fielder Ben Johnson is hot at the plate, Tres Barrera is flashing his prodigious power, the starting rotation is beginning to solidify as Josh Sawyer and Kacy Clemens gain experience. Conference play will be brutal, but this team looks well positioned. I'm excited about this group.

Abram: Yeah, I agree that the four-game losing streak should not be given too much weight at this point. That's just baseball--the bats aren't going to show up every day, especially in cold weather, and losing a pair of close ones at Stanford is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. It's true that the Big 12 is suddenly a very strong conference in baseball, but I think that's a great thing. If the offense continues to operate at this improved level, with Johnson and Barrera leading the way but also guys like Michael Cantu and Bret Boswell showing flashes of brilliance, I remain confident in Skip Johnson's ability to get the pitching staff up to form by midseason. There are kinks remaining to be worked out, but I like the trajectory.

Jeff: I'm cautiously optimistic but still scared about the starting pitching. French is rounding into form, but Hollingsworth is still not back to 100% and neither Sawyer nor Clemens have proven they can be counted on to shut down the likes of TCU. I'll count the San Diego series as an aberration considering the weather and everything else we've seen from the Texas offense this season. I think we all knew going into the season that the pitching wouldn't be a finished product early in the season, so that being the case isn't particularly alarming.

Question 2: What are you most (pleasantly) surprised by so far this season?

Michael: I typically try to avoid singling folks out in these types of questions, but I can't help it with this one. Most surprised with Michael Cantu and Bret Boswell. They both have stepped up offensively and really complemented the veteran bats in the order. Knew the talent was there, but it's shown pretty offensively pretty early in the year.

Wescott: As tempted as I am to talk about the power surge by this team, it's hard to ignore the contributions from the relief pitchers -- four different players have saves already, with sophomore Jon Malmin leading the team in ERA at 0.96 over 9.1 innings pitched. Keep an eye on freshman Kyle Johnston, too. He had a rough outing against Stanford on Friday, but otherwise he's been nails and can run his fastball up there in the mid-90s, a pitch that should consistently overpower opponents this season late in games.

Abram: I can't say there's anything I find particularly surprising at this point. On the positive side of the ledger things are playing out either A) as expected, or B) in a manner that was 50/50 heading into the season. Cantu and Boswell have been great, but that was something we thought may well be the case. French is throwing well as expected, Johnson is on pace for a breakout year as hoped--there's no one I expected nothing from who has come up huge. Wescott's example of Johnston comes closest.

Jeff: For my biggest surprise I'll go with Kirby Bellow. He's a senior who was so forgotten that he wasn't even mentioned in any of the previews we put out on the baseball team. Bellow had something like 13 innings pitched in his three previous years on the 40 Acres and they weren't particularly good innings. Now he's the first guy out of the pen and he has the most innings pitched of any non-starter. He'll never be Corey Knebel but it's cool to see a guy who has put in so much work at Texas finally get his reward.

Question 3:

Michael: For my disappointment, and you already touched on it Jeff, I have to go with Chad Hollingsworth's start. It's probably equal parts his recovery and my rather lofty expectations following his 2014 postseason, but I was really expecting him to come on and at least secure the #2 spot behind French. I still think he can get there, but I'll feel better when the narrative shifts from picking 2 of the Hollingsworth/Sawyer/Clemens to deciding whether Sawyer or Clemens rounds out our weekends.

Wescott: The pitching of Kacy Clemens hasn't been what Texas will need later in the season from him, but shortstop CJ Hinojosa has been as disappointing at the plate as Clemens on the mound. Hinojosa may be pressing in a contract season at the plate having recorded only one multi-hit game this season and three errors in the field aren't what Augie Garrido wants in terms of consistency. Fortunately, the sample size is still pretty small at the plate and he is currently riding a four-game hitting streak.

Abram: I think roughly the same is true on the disappointment side. It's too early to call Hinojosa a "disappointment," especially as Wescott points out he seems to have broken out of his slump in Palo Alto. Everyone knows the kid can play; I'm not real worried about it. It's true the pitching hasn't been ideal, but it has been about at the level expected in the early stages. It'll be a disappointment only if the staff hasn't brought its overall level up to Texas' usual standards by the season's crunch time.

Jeff: I thought about going with CJ or Zane Gurwitz for more disappointment but CJ is known for his slumps and Gurwitz broke out last year after a slow start so I'm not going to panic on either of them yet. Instead I'll go with Travis Duke. I really thought Duke would be the most important arm in the bullpen but he is off to a pretty bad start. The ERA isn't bad (2.16), but his stuff isn't fooling anyone. Duke was incredible last year (0.29 ERA, .200 opponent BA) and he has been the opposite this year (.324 opponent BA). Duke has given up exactly half as many hits this year as he gave up all of last year (11 vs 22) in 1/4th the innings. Texas needs lots of guys that can throw 2-3 innings out of the bullpen since its starters aren't going to go 7.1 IP this season. Getting Duke to be that guy again would be huge.

Question 4: This one  is a multi-part prediction question. Predict the following for Texas:
Home Run King - Johnson or Barrera (both tied at 3)

Pitcher with the second most IP (assuming French first) - _____________

Final team BA - O/U .280 (current .274)

Final team ERA - O/U 2.78 (current ERA)

Big 12 Winner: _________

Texas Big 12 finish: _______

Texas Postseason Seed (& hosting if any): ________

Texas' last game of the season will be: ________

Michael:

Home Run King - Barrera

Pitcher with second most IP: Hollingsworth

Team BA - Under .280

Team ERA - Under 2.78

Big 12 Winner: TCU

Texas Big 12 finish: 2nd

Texas Postseason Seed: 7th national

Texas last game of the season: Same as last year, 1 game shy of the final series

Wescott:

Home Run King -- Barrera

Pitcher with second most IP -- Sawyer

Team BA -- Under .280

Team ERA -- Under .278

Big 12 Winner -- TCU

Texas Big 12 finish -- 3rd

Texas Postseason Seed -- None

Texas last game of season -- Three and out in Omaha

Abram:

Home Run King - Johnson, by a single home run
Pitcher with the second most IP (assuming French first) - Hollingsworth
Final team BA - Under .280
Final team ERA - Under 2.78
Big 12 Winner: TCU
Texas Big 12 finish: Third
Texas Postseason Seed (& hosting if any): None, hosting regional

Texas' last game of the season will be: A gut-punch game-three loss in the Gainesville Super Regional

Jeff:

Home Run King - Barrera
Pitcher with the second most IP (assuming French first) - Hollingsworth
Final team BA - Over .280
Final team ERA - Under 2.78
Big 12 Winner: TCU
Texas Big 12 finish: Second
Texas Postseason Seed (& hosting if any): 8 Seed

Texas' last game of the season will be: Somebody has to predict a dog pile, right? I'll be that guy.

That concludes our second annual Burnt Orange Nation Baseball Writers Roundtable.

Today's matchup features Texas versus West Virginia. The Mountaineers have a series victory in their opener over perennial powerhouse Clemson but have otherwise been unimpressive. WVU has some talent, particularly with starters Chad Donato and Ross Vance and senior shortstop Taylor Munden.

Controlling the production from their talented players and making WVU beat you with depth appears to be the biggest key to a series victory for Texas. WVU has five guys with 15 or more ABs and hitting under .200 and only three pitchers with more than 3.0 IP and an ERA below 3.50 (Texas has one of the former and 10 of the latter).

Looking bigger picture, Texas plays WVU and Kansas State at home to open Big 12 play. Winning both series and (ideally) getting a sweep would be big for competing in the ultra-tough Big 12. First pitch is at 6 p.m. tonight, Parker French will be your pitcher and this will be your open thread. Hook 'em.