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Texas baseball splits series against No. 23 Rice

The ‘Horns showed signs of progress over 2016, but they aren’t exactly ready for Omaha yet.

The Eyes of Texas

It was a weekend that met, but did not exceed expectations. In my preview for this Rice match-up, I anticipated a 2-2 split, with Texas the team more likely to get a series victory. The ‘Horns did get a chance to take a series win after winning both of Saturday’s games, but a five run Rice 6th inning on Sunday was the catalyst to crush those hopes.

Here’s my recap on the last three games.

First game of Double-Header

Texas wins 5-4

The theme of Saturday’s first game was “bend, but don’t break”. Kyle Johnston started for Texas, and gave up a leadoff double in his first batter faced, but worked his way out of the jam. Rice got a runner on base every inning that Johnston pitched, but only scored on a second inning two out single. Johnston’s six-inning, 96 pitch appearance was stress inducing, but he finished with a solid line: seven hits, one earned run, six strikeouts, and perhaps most importantly, only one walk. Johnston’s team leading 43 walks allowed last season was a large part of why he had occasional blow-up innings despite being one of the ‘Horns most talented pitchers. Getting out of jams becomes much easier when you have honed your command, and he had much better control to start 2017.

Though Texas fell down 0-1 in the second inning, Texas’ offense eventually gave Johnston a nice cushion. Kacy Clemens was a part of both of Texas’ rallies. In the 3rd, he got things started off with a single up the middle. Two straight bunt singles (yes, you read that correctly) from Freshmen Austin Todd and David Hamilton loaded up the bases with no outs. Travis Jones was then hit by a pitch to bring one home, and Kody Clemens hit an RBI ground out to bring things to a 2-1 lead for the ‘Horns. That was all from Texas in the 3rd, as Ryan Reynolds grounded into a double play when the bases again became loaded.

Reynolds avenged himself for ending a rally by starting one in the bottom of the 6th with a base hit. A Joe Baker single, a Michael Cantu strikeout, and a Kacy Clemens walk later, and the bases were loaded with one out. Texas’ pitching depth advantage over depleted Rice became apparent at this point, as the Owls had to turn to freshman Nick Silber. Silber walked Austin Todd to bring in a Texas run, and then allowed a Hamilton single to make the score 4-1 in favor of the ‘Horns. Rice changed pitchers, but the damage was not over. After a Travis Jones strikeout, Kody Clemens was hit by a pitch to make the lead 5-1.

But Rice would not give up in the final 7th inning. Sophomore closer Chase Shugart entered the game for Johnston, and became the first Texas pitcher of 2017 to have a poor appearance. Shugart allowed a homer in his first at bat of the season, and then allowed a string of base runners which culminated in a two-out base hit to score two. Suddenly, Texas’ lead had dwindled to one. In a somewhat surprising move, Pierce called on sophomore Beau O’Hara to get the final out of the game. A junior college transfer from Blinn College, O’Hara is not the most decorated recruit the ‘Horns have on the roster, but he is Pierce’s only recruit currently on the team. Pierce trusted his guy with a runner on first and second and a 5-4 lead. O’Hara allowed a single to left, but left fielder Travis Jones gunned the runner from second down at home to provide a thrilling end to a game Texas had no business losing, but almost did anyways. Bend, but don’t break.

Second game of Double-Header

Texas wins 6-1

The main takeaway from Saturday’s nightcap was that Freshman Texas pitcher Blair Henley is the real deal. In my pitching preview, I wasn’t sure if Henley was ready to be a starter immediately, but he got the call and delivered. In his five innings pitched, the newcomer utilized his nasty off-speed stuff and strong fastball to put away eight batters for strikeouts. Henley perhaps showed some first collegiate game jitters, as he let up a run in the first on a sacrifice. However, the freshman was otherwise poised and comfortable on the bump. He allowed three hits and only one run on the day in an extremely impressive first game for the former MLB draft pick.

Though Texas’ allowed a run in the top of the 1st, they got it back in the bottom half of the inning. Travis Jones walked and then stole second with two outs, leading to the clutch Kacy Clemens to knock him home on a single.

Cut to the bottom of the 4th, still knotted at one. Kacy Clemens starts things off with a walk, followed by an Austin Todd walk. Joe Baker then attempted to lay down a sac bunt, but Rice’s pitcher threw the ball away, resulting Clemens scoring and Todd advancing to third. Catcher Michael McCann then singled to score Baker. McCann’s success is especially a good sign, as many feared that Cantu would be without a clear proven back-up.

That was all the noise for the 4th inning, but Texas would extend its 4-1 lead to 6-1 after a bases loaded walk to Cantu in the 5th, and a Kacy Clemens solo shot in the 7th.

Lefty senior Jon Malmin came on to pitch in relief of Henley, and got the job done despite having minimal game experience last season. He allowed runners on base in both innings, but also notched two strikeouts to his name. Sophomore Beau Ridgeway came on in the 8th to finish things off. Ridgeway too allowed runners on base in both of his innings, but Rice never came close to threatening Texas’ 6-1 lead. A pop-up ended the game, and all of the sudden the ‘Horns had a 2-1 record.

Sunday game

Texas loses 7-1

Texas’ bats were pretty anemic in this one — four hits, two of which were from the on-fire Kacy Clemens. The brightest spot for ‘Horns hitters was Brett Boswell knocking a solo homer in the bottom of the 5th. The junior, who slumped for most of last year, showcased his potential and briefly tied the game at one.

Junior pitcher Connor Mayes got the start for Texas, and he looked solid, though not markably improved over 2016’s campaign. Mayes allowed a double in the 4th that scored a runner, but the 6th inning was where the wheels started to come off. With the score knotted at one, Mayes allowed a leadoff walk and a single and was pulled for Jake McKenzie. Mckenzie hit a batter and then allowed two runs on a double. With the score now 3-1 Rice ahead, lefty Nick Kennedy got the call.

The sophomore Kennedy, who posted a 8.44 ERA last season, did not look improved from last season. Though he has the frame and pitch velocity to succeed, he simply didn’t have his stuff on Sunday. He recorded two outs, but allowed a double, a wild pitch, two singles, and a hit by pitch in the process. The Rice lead burgeoned to 6-1. Tyler Schimpf got the ‘Horns out of the jam, but the damage was done.

It’s easy for me to say so now, but McKenzie and Kennedy were risky choices to take the mound in a tight game in trouble. McKenzie, who was predominantly used as an infielder last year, only had 1.1 innings pitched in 2016. Kennedy was less of a curious choice, as Pierce really liked what he saw from him in the fall, but he was still a risk after a poor freshman year in 2016. I would’ve been more interested in seeing lefty former starter Josh Sawyer or experienced 6-5 sophomore Blake Wellman if they were available. I wouldn’t have even minded highly touted freshman Kevin Rolliard getting the call (he got his chance later in the game).

The aforementioned Rolliard came in for one inning in the eighth and allowed a leadoff walk and allowed both runners to be safe on a fielder’s choice, but otherwise evaded trouble. He got his first collegiate strikeout in the process. Rolliard, a former high school Honorable Mention All-American, should be a weapon for the ‘Horns in the future with the heat he has on his fastball.

Beau O’Hara made his second appearance of the series and allowed a two out blooper single that scored run number seven for Rice. O’Hara looked capable on the mound, but it was simply a day when luck wasn’t on the side of the ‘Horns.

Rice’s star closer Glenn Otto, who wasn’t expected to play in this series due to injury, felt healthy enough to take the mound and finish off the Longhorns. He retired Texas in order to end the game.

* * *

Rice was missing three key pitchers due to injury, and also star second baseman Tristan Gray. The absences were apparent — especially on the mound. But don’t let that take away from the fact that Texas baseball is fun again. Four Texas home runs on the weekend would’ve been unprecedented in 2016, and Texas pitchers supplied only elevated blood pressure levels in fans rather than full on heart attacks (for the most part).

Pierce just needs to continue to experiment with his lineup and rotation until he finds what works for him. Some players, such as Jon Malmin and Kevin Rolliard, were pleasant surprises and should get more opportunities. It’s too early to say for sure — but other guys, like Jake McKenzie and Nick Kennedy need more work before they can play prominent roles in the rotation.

Here’s my personal weekend picks for players who stood out:

Weekend MVP hitter... Kacy Clemens — Older Clemens not only proved that last year’s break-out was not a fluke, but actually may have shown that he’s only gotten better. He was a part of nearly run scored by the ‘Horns, and went 6-11 with a homer to his name. In addition to his stellar stats, he also had positive moments that won’t show on the score sheet. Clemens had several great stretches at first, and knocked down a wild throw to first on Sunday that would’ve resulted in a run if it got past him.

Weekend MVP pitcher... Blair Henley — Every freshman who played this weekend did admirably, but Henley looked particularly capable to thrive at the collegiate level. His Saturday night win, which included eight strikeouts, may only be the beginning of a fruitful Texas career. Texas will be deep on the mound this year, and Henley will be a crucial piece of that.

Hitter who needs to get going...Patrick Mathis — Mathis has the most power on the team and might be Texas’ most talented hitter. So, he’s got high expectations. His 2-13, six strikeout weekend was not nearly enough for a guy batting in the three hole.

Pitcher who needs to get going...Chase Shugart — Shugart couldn’t close Saturday afternoon’s game, as he allowed three runs in his 0.2 innings. The sophomore is expected to be a reliable closer after filling the role adequately last season, and will surely get a chance to bounce back.

Shout-out to... David Hamilton — The freshman shortstop wasn’t always a force at the plate, but he had several phenomenal plays at short, especially on Friday night’s season opener. He also showcased his speed on the base paths, even laying down a bunt single on Saturday. All of the freshman who played this weekend looked strong, but Hamilton’s success was perhaps the most noticeable.

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Texas baseball will be back at it again on Wednesday at 6:30 CST on the road against Sam Houston State. That will be followed by a home stand against UCONN next weekend.

Special thanks to Reddit user Brihoang for allowing us to use his pictures for baseball coverage!