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Texas baseball pitching should be rujevenated under David Pierce

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The Longhorns should have a more steady bullpen in 2017 under David Pierce’s direction.

NCAA College World Series - LSU v Texas - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Pitching wasn’t the only cause of Texas baseball’s downfall in 2016, but the Longhorns’ performance on the mound was subpar when it used to be the team’s saving grace. The Longhorns finished with a mediocre 4.07 team ERA last season, good for 91st in the nation.

Texas’ inability to put runs on the board pressured the bullpen to excel, but there was no excuse for some of the blow-up innings fans had to endure in 2016.

So, will this season be any better? This writer believes so. Last season the Longhorns had eight pitchers record 24 inning or more —- four of those players were freshmen, and only one, Ty Culbreth, was a senior.

Culbreth, who emerged as an unlikely stable presence, notched a team high eight wins and 84.2 innings pitched, so he will be sorely missed. But the growth of the young bull pen and the additions of new talented freshmen should more than make up for the loss.

Below is my prediction for the rotation this season, which tips off against Rice in five days.

Projected Starters

Morgan Cooper — Rs. Jr. RHP

2016: 4.03 ERA, 3-5 win-loss record, drafted in 34th round of MLB draft by Nationals

Cooper’s 2016 stat-line was truly not all that head turning, but his mid-season emergence as a starter was remarkable considering he hadn’t been on the mound since the summer of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. With the injury now well behind him, Cooper has a chance to showcase the potential seen from him in his freshman season when he honed a 2.89 ERA in 56 innings pitched. Last season he was a serviceable starter, this year he’s expected to be the anchor.

Kyle Johnston — Jr. RHP

2016: 3.72 ERA, 3-2 win-loss record

When he’s on his game, Kyle Johnston is the best pitcher on Texas’ roster. His problem the past two years has been consistency issues. He led the team last year with 43 batters walked — 15 more than Connor Mayes’ second team worst 28. Against West Virginia last May, he allowed seven runs in only 1.2 innings pitched due largely to five walks. However, he’s also had stellar performances, including a nine strike out victory over Stanford last season. And thankfully for Texas fans, Johnston killed it in the California Collegiate Summer League, posting 54 strikeouts in 52 innings pitched and earning “Most Outstanding Pitcher” honors. With a fastball in the mid 90s, look for Johnston to lead the way if he can find the strike zone.

Connor Mayes — Jr. RHP

2016: 3.60 ERA, 0-4 win-loss record

Connor Mayes owned the best ERA for all Texas starters, but oddly didn’t record a win. He started and finished the season strong, but had trouble in the middle of the year. In a surprising loss to A&M Corpus Christi, Mayes allowed three runs in 1.1 innings pitched, which resulted in Augie Garrido relegating the righty to closer duties. However, Mayes got the call to start again in the Big 12 tournament and had a fantastic outing against TCU, going six innings and only allowing one run to the potent Horned Frogs lineup. He continued his momentum with a stellar California Collegiate Summer League season, claiming All-League Honors. Many writers anticipated that Mayes’ sophomore year would be his breakout season, but perhaps his junior season will be when he really locks in.

Nolan Kingham — So. RHP (weekday starter)

2016: 3.79 ERA, 2-3 win-loss record

Nolan Kingham is my prediction to fill the slightly less glamorous role of “weekday starter”, as the sophomore is Texas’ fourth best option at pitcher in my opinion. One of Augie Garrido’s favorite young weapons recorded 38 innings pitched last season and worked in both the starter and closer role. His best outing was in his second collegiate game, when he allowed only two hits and no runs against Stanford in 4.2 innings of work. Unfortunately, Kingham looked very shaky in last week’s alumni game. There, he allowed six hits and a walk in only 10 batters faced, leading to five runs being scored. Still, Kingham’s reliable 2016 performance should keep him in David Pierce’s favor for the time being.

The Relievers

Beau Ridgeway — So. RHP

2016: 3.31 ERA, 3-1 win-loss record

Ridgeway is a strikeout pitcher who had an excellent freshman season. Though he gave up three earned runs in 1.1 innings or less three times, he had many near flawless appearances. What more could you ask for out of a young pitcher? Ridgeway should be one of the first relievers called from the pen and may be in line for a starter role in the near future.

Josh Sawyer — RS. Jr. LHP

2016: 0.0 ERA, 6.0 innings pitched. Medical redshirt.

Sawyer pitched six scoreless innings last season and recorded a whopping 10 strikeouts in the process but was unfortunately sidelined by an injury the rest of the year and took a medical redshirt. He started 11 games in 2015 as a sophomore and looked sharp as a junior before injury, so there’s no reason Sawyer can’t have a big 2017 season.

Nick Kennedy — So. LHP

2016: 8.44 ERA, 1-1 win-loss record

Kennedy really wasn’t ready to pitch at the collegiate level his freshman season, as evidenced by the 8.44 ERA. However, Augie clearly saw something in the Tampa native, as Kennedy had 17 appearances. In the fall, Pierce named the lefty as a guy that he was impressed by and excited to work with. I’ll take coach’s word for it and predict that Kennedy will play a major role in the rotation this year.

Blair Henley — Fr. RHP

2016: Drafted in 22nd round by New York Yankees

Though former Texas commits Kyle Muller and Mason Thompson were both drafted in the first three rounds and left for the pros, Henley was drafted just a little too late for him to warrant going pro out of high school. Thus, Pierce and the Longhorns have a very solid freshman to work with. Henley doesn’t have the most powerful arm, but he possesses a “nasty slider” and a good curveball which could result in him getting collegiate experience under his belt as a freshman. Last season, many freshman pitchers contributed to the team, and if there’s one newcomer that will make an impact this season, it’s Henley.

Blake Wellman — So. RHP

2016: 5.47 ERA, 0-1 win-loss record

Wellman pitched 24.2 innings as a freshman and looked strong in many non-conference outings, but the rails began to fall off in Big 12 play. The Brenham native allowed 10 earned runs in only 2.2 innings pitched in his final four games and would end up with a 16.10 conference ERA. Wellman has the tools to succeed at a high level, but who knows where the sophomore stands in Pierce’s pecking order. After all, Eric Dunbar pitched 18 innings last season and isn’t even listed on the active roster anymore. Still, I believe it’s very possible that Wellman will shake off the freshman jitters and settle in to a better 2017 campaign.

Kevin Roliard — Fr. RHP

2016: Honorable Mention All-American

My second candidate for freshman pitching contributor is Spring, Texas native Kevin Roliard. Roliard was a top 200 recruit whose main weapon is speed. His fastball has been clocked at 94 MPH and he should only develop more under David Pierce’s tutelage. I don’t think he’s ready to log in a high amount of innings, but I’ll be interested to see how Roliard is used this season.

Jon Malmin — Sr. LHP

2016: 7.30 ERA, 1-3 win-loss record

Malmin has played only a minor role in Texas’ rotation throughout his career, but perhaps his senior season will be when he will become a more apparent contributor. Texas only has three lefties, but all three can get the job done and Malmin is no exception. Though he had a few poor outings in 2016, BON writer Max Wildstein predicts Malmin to be a breakout candidate in 2017.

Closer

Chase Shugart — So. RHP

2016: 4.32 ERA, 2-3 win-loss record, five saves

Expect to hear a fair share of “pour some Shugart on me” jokes when this sophomore takes the mound in the late innings. Shugart is a strikeout pitcher, fanning 38 batters in 43.1 innings in 2016. He earned Augie’s trust enough to take on a closer role as a freshman, and closed five saves in the process. He wasn’t flawless as a freshman, but no evidence points to the Bridge City native not being a reliable closer for the ‘Horns.

Also keep an eye out for...

Beau O’Hara - So. RHP

One of Pierce’s first Texas recruits who transferred from Blinn Junior College. Got some work in the alumni game.

Tyler Schimpf — RS. So. RHP and Parker Joe Robinson — So. RHP

Neither made a huge impact last season, but Pierce tested both of them out in the alumni game so don’t be surprised if one of these sophomores takes the mound.

* * *

Overall, the rotation aging another year while only losing Ty Culbreth and Travis Duke should result in improvement, but the extent of which remains to be seen. Some players (Nick Kennedy, Blake Wellman) will need to take leaps forward to be productive, while others (Kyle Johnston, Connor Mayes) are only minor adjustments away from becoming studs.

I’m not sure the Longhorns brought in enough elite freshman talent for the holes in the bull pen to be completely filled. However, the rotation should be more than serviceable — especially if the bats can get going. That is, of course, a big if.

Speaking of which, the next preview on deck is for Texas hitters. Stay tuned.