March Madness had one of its most boring opening days in years. For the first time, your bracket is busted because you didn’t pick the favorites, and you’re already really tired of hearing about the whole “this is Northwestern’s first appearance in the tournament” storyline. Also, the Texas Longhorns were shockingly left out of the bracket despite notching 11 whole wins on the season.
Thankfully, basketball in March only serves as a distraction from the true pinnacle of collegiate sports excitement — conference baseball. The Longhorns (13-6) have potentially a season -defining series on their hands this weekend when David Pierce’s team hosts No. 6 Texas Tech (14-4). The first pitch will be tonight at 6:30 pm CT at the Disch.
Texas is riding a six-game win streak, including a thrilling win against No. 17 Texas A&M on Tuesday. If the Longhorns can take two of three this weekend, they will undoubtably find themselves in the top 25, and better still, begin a rigorous Big 12 season with momentum.
The main development to watch for this weekend will be how the rearranged Texas pitching rotation delivers.
Sophomore Nolan Kingham (0.42 ERA) has unexpectedly gone from weekday pitcher to Friday starter, emerging as the second stud on the hill in addition to Saturday pitcher Morgan Cooper (1.88 ERA). Sunday starter Blair Henley (3.00 ERA) has had minor freshman moments (he leads the team with 10 walks), but is performing at a very high level as well.
The plethora of starting pitcher talent combined with a need for high-quality relievers allowed Pierce to move Kyle Johnston from starter to closer. Johnston’s fastball in the high 90s and nasty off-speed stuff made him a great candidate for the position, and he was flawless in his first two appearances against UCLA.
However, against Texas A&M Johnston walked three runners and allowed a single in his four batters faced and nearly cost Texas the game. How Pierce uses Johnston this weekend and how Johnston bounces back will be intriguing to watch after a game which could’ve easily rattled the righty’s confidence.
Though Texas Tech is not necessarily an elite hitting team, the Red Raiders have won several games with their bats, boosted by two offensive stars in non-conference play. Junior Hunter Hargrove boasts a .351/.595/.400 slash-line, with a team-high seven doubles, and tied for team high three homers. Freshman Grant Little wasn’t a highly-coveted prospect out of high school, but he has already come on to lead Tech in batting average, hitting .375. As a team, the Matadors are hitting .279.
Like most top-10 teams, Tech is skilled at pitching, too. The team currently holds a 3.13 ERA, and every starter is a strikeout pitcher. Steven Gingerly (1.47 ERA) has fanned 31 hitters in his 30.2 innings pitched, and fellow weekend starters Ryan Shetter and Davis Martin have notched 27 and 18 strikeouts, respectively.
To survive Tech’s starters, the Longhorns will need to simply put the ball in play, as Texas batters have already struck out 147 times this year. In the past couple of weeks, Texas’ hitting has gone from bad to mediocre, in large part due to the Texas contributions from new players — Michael McCann and Tate Shaw are two guys who have stepped up recently.
McCann in particular is making a case to be the new starting catcher, as he holds a .478/.652/.500 slash-line through 23 at-bats, and has come through in clutch moments for the ‘Horns.
However, he will likely need to continue developing behind the plate to become a consistent replacement for the more defensive-minded Michael Cantu.
The Longhorns should be in for their biggest challenge yet, but at a time when they are the hottest the team has been in years. That should make for some interesting baseball. Who needs hoops?
You can catch tonight’s action on the Longhorn Network or listen in on 104.9 the Horn. This is your game thread.