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How Texas Longhorns baseball recovered from slow start

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A combination of factors helped the Longhorns recover from struggles that had Augie Garrido's job on the line and the 2016 season on the brink.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

With wins in six of the last seven games, including handing the Texas Tech Red Raiders two of the team's three conference losses last weekend in Lubbock, Texas Longhorns baseball has started to turn around what was an immensely disappointing season that once unquestionably looked like the necessary end of head coach Augie Garrido's long and incredibly distinguished career.

Several weeks ago, Texas dropped to 12-17 on the season after an embarrassing 5-0 loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi that left the normally loquacious at a complete loss for words.

"I'm going to be perfectly honest. It's stunning that you don't know," he said. "It's like, when you get a wound of some sort, you don't feel it at first so you don't know. So that's where I am with it. It's just... I'm pretty speechless."

So how did this baseball team turn things around after bottoming out on that Tuesday night just a little more than three weeks ago?

Let us count the ways.

The schedule lightened up

In late March, when BON baseball writer Jeff Asher took a leap and said what everyone was thinking -- that Longhorns baseball needed change -- Texas had faced the seventh-toughest schedule in the country, a daunting challenge that even featured difficult midweek games against Lamar and Houston that resulted in losses. After playing two top-20 teams in Tech and TCU, that strength of schedule now sits at No. 5 nationally.

However, once the Longhorns got into conference play and faced off against cold-weather schools like Kansas (No. 191 in RPI) and Kansas State (No. 150 in RPI), things started to turn around, as Texas was able to take four of six games in those two series. Granted, Garrido and his team weren't happy even to drop those two games, but the 'Horns mostly took care of business when necessary to position the team for a strong finish in the Big 12.

The team got healthy

When the schedule was treacherous during the non-conference season and Texas was struggling, key injuries played a significant role.

Junior left-handed pitcher Josh Sawyer was expected to be a big part of the rotation for the 'Horns, but he missed more than a month after throwing two innings against UNLV in the opener and has only pitched 2.1 innings since.

Last season, sophomore left fielder Patrick Mathis only recorded one hit in 16 at bats, but quickly made his presence felt in 2016, hitting two home runs against the Rebels to start the season. Then he suffered a hamstring injury and missed six games, three of which were losses. Since he's been back, he's hit .377 in Big 12 play and leads the team with 19 RBI during that stretch.

Right about the same time that Mathis went down, sophomore centerfielder Tyler Rand suffered a broken hand when he was hit by a pitch by a Cardinal pitcher. He missed 14 games and was a catalyst against Kansas (4-for-10) and Texas Tech (4-for-12). Now the Houston-area product leads the team with nine stolen bases.

Then there was the injury to sophomore shortstop Joe Baker, described by Garrido as the team's best baseball player in addition to playing the most important position in the infield. Like Rand, Baker missed 14 games from the middle of March to the middle of April and his return coincided with the team's recent resurgence. Since the Kansas series, his first back in the lineup, Baker has raised his batting average 43 points, culminating in five hits in his last six at bats and eight RBI over those two games.

The return to health allowed the 'Horns to return to the team's most ideal lineup after experimenting with catcher Tres Barrera at third base while Baker was out. But as well as Barrera played at third, the struggles of back-up catcher Michael Cantu at the plate (.182 batting average), placed a great deal of stress on the other players in the lineup.

Kacy Clemens became a hitter

Through two seasons at Texas, the junior first baseman was a lot of things at Texas -- patient at the plate, steady in the field, and a decent option on the mound. What he was not, however, was an effective hitter, managing a meager .210 batting average with five extra-base hits in 257 plate appearances.

Then some things changed. Clemens spent the fall focusing on hitting instead of splitting his time pitching. After his grandmother had hounded him for years to wear prescription glasses at the plate, her efforts finally combined with those of his father and pitching coach Skip Johnson to convince Clemens to starting wearing them.

The results were virtually instantaneous -- he matched his career total in extra-base hits in his first 19 plate appearances after donning the glasses and now has his average up to .301. The power is there with four home runs, one triple, and 11 doubles, and Clemens is spraying the ball all over the field from the left side of the plate, in addition to maintaining his patient approach in tying for second on the team with 21 walks.

"Honestly, it's not that big of a difference," he said. "I feel the work I've put in is showing up on the field. ... This is the same way I hit all through fall and early in spring scrimmages."

Wherever the bulk of the credit lies, Clemens is an entirely different player now that he's focused purely on hitting and can see the baseball better.

The entire lineup started showing more patience

In the first two games against Stanford, Texas hitters struck out 19 times. Heading into the conference season, the team had eight games with nine or more strikeouts. There are still occasions when the Longhorns strike out too often, once again hitting double digits in three of the last eight games, but it doesn't matter as much now because the offensive production is increasing so much.

"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.

Overall, Texas is hitting .293 in conference play with 15 home runs, tops in the Big 12.

The confidence and comfort level is contagious.

"You see how big [Tyler] Rand, [Joe] Baker and [Patrick] Mathis are," Garrido said on Tuesday. "We started the season against some of the best teams in the country and had one-third of the lineup, maybe the best third of the lineup... Our job is to take who we have and give them an opportunity... But now that you can see what those three can do, and how uplifting that is mentally and the examples they can set by performing and doing things leads others into not feeling they have to do it all or lose the game. Whatever you fear, you will make happen. That's the truth."

The pitching situation solidified

At the start of the year, notoriously wild sophomore right-hander Kyle Johnston was the Friday starter and sophomore right-hander Connor Mayes was the Sunday starter. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, junior Morgan Cooper moved into the Friday role against TCU and has struggled to keep runs off the board, but he did free up Johnston to pitch on Sunday against a less-talented starter to provide Texas more margin for error.

Gritty, flame-throwing freshman right-hander Chase Shugart didn't give up a run in his first five appearances before melting down in a loss to Cal, allowing five runs in 1.1 innings. Subsequent outings against UCLA and Tulane didn't go much better, but other than a poor performance in the Friday loss to Kansas, Shugart has been solid, lowering his ERA from a high of 6.06 to 3.66 heading into this weekend's series against Oklahoma State.

"I thought [Chase] Shugart took possession of the mound, and he's looked like that the last three times out," Garrido said after Shugart threw a perfect inning against Texas State. "You know that competitiveness and confidence is in there, but he didn't have the experience in this environment earlier in the year, and the Cal game would have been enough to send you to a medical facility."

Other arms have emerged in the bullpen, too, including freshmen Nolan Kingham, Beau Ridgeway, and Blake Wellmann.

*****

After winning the home series against TCU, Shugart summed up the situation for Texas baseball.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we can be the team that we want to be. It's either fight or flight now and we don't have wings. Might as well fight."

It took some time and a full return to health, but the Longhorns are finally showing some fight, and the results to lend credence to those claims of battling.

"I think we've been mentally focused all year round," Kacy Clemens said on Tuesday. "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."