Now that's what a midweek game is supposed to look like -- Texas Longhorns baseball used clutch hitting early to score six runs through the first five innings and then relied on scoreless relief pitching to cruise to a 6-2 victory over the Texas State Bobcats at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Tuesday.
It was the 24th straight win for the 'Horns over the 'Cats and the team's sixth win in the last seven games to mark the best stretch of play for head coach Augie Garrido's team this season. Now at 20-21, Texas is tied for third in the Big 12 with a big home series looming this weekend against No. 23 Oklahoma State, the other team currently occupying that third spot.
"I think that's the 27th inning, at the completion of this game, that we've played good solid baseball and the unbelievable things that happened earlier in the year have stopped happening," head coach Augie Garrido said. "The first game at Texas Tech was one that you've all seen. But when we talked about it afterwards, they had more experience, so they understood that they needed to make changes. They have control over the game and they understand now. The experiences have helped them move from knowing about what to do to being able to do it, and that's a huge step forward for us."
A two-run double by shortstop Joe Baker opened the scoring for Texas in the bottom of the first inning with two outs and continued his hot stretch of play after earning Big 12 Player of the Week honors on Monday. In the third, first baseman Kacy Clemens once again created some separation after the Bobcats answered with two in the top of the frame, launching his fourth home-run of the season over the left-field fence to continue his season-long power surge.
Texas continued manufacturing runs on a Zane Gurwitz single and two more runs over the next two innings on an error and a sacrifice fly.
Starter Connor Mayes only made it through the fourth inning, but Beau Ridgeway came on for three flawless innings (two hits and three strikeouts) in relief, Eric Dunbar added another effective frame, and Chase Shugart continued his strong efforts at the back end of the pen with a perfect ninth inning.
What's the difference right now for Texas? Getting healthy for an extended stretch has helped, but the biggest key has been reducing the number of games with so many strikeouts.
"The pitch selection is much better at the plate," head coach Augie Garrido said. "You're not seeing nearly as many foul balls straight to the backstop as you did earlier in the year. You've seen more line drives out into the field, so that's another good sign that they're relaxed and the timing is good and they're using the whole field."
Showing better patience impacts the entire at bat -- early in the season, the Texas hitters were going outside of the zone early in the count, which allowed opposing pitchers to throw off-speed pitches low and in the dirt and get swings and misses for strikeouts.
Now the Longhorns are commanding the count early and forcing pitchers to throw strikes to get them out. And it's not working as well for opponents, as the 'Horns all of a sudden have seven hitters at .294 or better -- almost the entire starting lineup Garrido has settled on in recent weeks.
Baker has been a key catalyst -- he missed nearly a month from the middle of March to the middle of April, and after two rough games against Kansas, he's raised his batting average 40 points over the last five games. Garrido called him the team's best baseball player recently and the sophomore has been proving him right with eight RBI in the last two games.
Overall, Clemens doesn't really see any change in the effort level, he's just seeing major changes in the results.
"I think we've been mentally focused all year round," he said. "We're not really doing anything different, we're just having success now. I think that all the adversity that has happened already kind of helps us, because we know how to fight when we're down and we use that to our advantage."