The crucial stretch of the Longhorns' baseball schedule is approaching, with the next four conference series featuring Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas, and TCU. That's three weekends out of four against squads hoping to contend for the league title, which will follow this weekend's series at Nebraska--who leads the Big Ten at 3-0 after a sweep of Michigan, and who was competitive in close losses to Texas A&M and LSU at the Houston College Classic.
All of which is to say, Texas had both the blessing and the curse of starting its conference series not only against two beatable teams, but playing both at home. To set themselves up for a title run, they really needed to come out of it at 5-1 and that's exactly what they did with the sweep of KSU following the 2-1 series win over West Virginia to start the Big 12 slate.
This weekend could reasonably be called The Kacy Clemens Series, as the sophomore not only hopped back into last year's role as starting first baseman for the Saturday double-header, but also kept this year's role as Sunday starter and performed at a very high level at both tasks. With the number three starter position still very much up for grabs, Clemens made a strong case Sunday in giving up two hits and one run over five innings, and the offense rewarded him with three runs in the bottom of the fifth to stake a 4-1 lead and ultimately give him the win by the final score of 6-1.
In games one and two of the weekend, Clemens earned the right to hit for himself on Sunday, listing as "P/DH" in the lineup. Although he had only one hit in six at-bats on Saturday, he consistently hit the ball on the nose and just had some bad luck. His swing and timing looked much improved as compared to last year as Clemens made the most of the opportunity given him to see more field time.
Other pitchers gave fans reason for optimism as well. Parker French had a solid outing to start the weekend, going six innings and surrendering only one earned run (to go with two unearned) before giving way to senior Kirby Bellow who got the win with two perfect innings. It was equally encouraging to see Ty Culbreth, who struggled in his last couple of outings, come in and clean up a bit of a mess in the ninth inning of Game One. Augie went to Culbreth after a pair of freshman hurlers had given up a walk and a single, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate with no outs in a 5-3 game. Culbreth induced a fielder's choice to get runners on the corners with one out, followed by a pop-up and a ground out to secure the save.
In the nightcap, Chad Hollingsworth had the best start of the weekend for Texas. He worked into the eighth inning, giving up only a single run on six hits with four strikeouts. Hollingsworth was efficient, needing only 88 pitches to get 22 outs. Bellow followed him up by remaining perfect on the day, sitting down all five Wildcats he faced (including two strikeouts) for the save. Travis Duke and Connor Mayes combined to throw the last four innings on Sunday after Clemens came out, and between them they gave up no runs. The result was a completely clean sheet for the Texas bullpen on the weekend--a great accomplishment for a group that has been somewhat maligned thus far.
The offense continued apace, scoring 14 runs total in the series--a number that would've led to jumping for joy the last few years, but is actually pretty low for 2015. With 15 runs against West Virginia, 22 in four games at Stanford, 31 in four games against Minnesota, and 18 in the season opening four-game series at Rice, Texas is scoring runs at a much better clip than seemed possible a season ago.
If the K-State series is an indication that the pitching--both starters and relievers--is coming around, Texas looks like a mighty tough squad to beat. A record of 16-8 is obviously not jaw-droppingly impressive, but playing a legitimate schedule to start the season--the 26th toughest in the country according to Boyd's World's ISR ratings--and getting game reps for a young pitching staff may be starting to pay off. Next up is a second-straight midweek road game, as the Longhorns travel to San Marcos to play Texas State Tuesday at 6:00 before traveling to Lincoln for a weekend set against former conference foe Nebraska.
This is your Tuesday evening open thread. Hook 'em.