Roughly 30 minutes after the first pitch by the Texas Longhorns at UFCU-Disch Falk Field in front of a sparse Wednesday evening crowd, the ‘Horns were finally safely in the bottom of the first inning, but trailed 7-0.
A furious comeback ensued to end the team’s four-game losing streak that marked the lowest point in an up-and-down season for new head coach David Pierce and his team, ultimately culminating in a potentially momentum-changing 9-7 victory thanks to a remarkable effort from reliever Jon Malmin, who pitched 6.2 scoreless innings.
Junior starter Connor Mayes, whose struggles over the last two seasons have been rather perplexing given the strong finish to his freshman campaign, only managed one out over his 35 pitches.
On the plus side, he did record a strike out and only gave up two hits, but was ultimately charged with seven runs after walking four batters. The Lake Travis product threw a strike on his first pitch, then gave up a home run, walked the next batter, conceded a double, and walked three more before his departure.
Right now, it’s clear that Mayes is in a fragile state mentally.
“It's an emotional time for him,” Pierce said after the game. “He's just got to build his confidence back up. We've got a few guys who are in that category. As we're trying to play opponents and win games, we've got to really try to build some confidence back in some other guys.”
Malmin, one of the few left-handed pitchers available to Pierce, gave up two singles, but helped pick off a base runner and secured a groundout to mercifully end the inning before scattering five more hits and striking out seven Vaqueros over the subsequent six innings.
As for Malmin, Pierce just wants him to stay “locked in” after he struggled last season.
“He's a kid that hasn't had a lot of innings so he's got good stuff, he can help us from the left side, he's got a great move and controls the runners. We just need to see more of that and it was great to see it tonight.”
Much to the credit of the Texas hitters — and the team as a whole — the bottom of the first served notice to the visiting team that securing the 27 outs necessary for the upset victory was not going to be easy.
A two-run home run by second baseman Bret Boswell scored first baseman Kacy Clemens in narrowly missing the Taco Shack sign in right field. In the second, the ‘Horns seriously cut into the lead thanks to another two-run blast, courtesy of third baseman Ryan Reynolds on this occasion, and two run-scoring singles.
“Offensively I thought it was really big for us to get two runs early to bounce right back and then put four more,” Pierce said. “At that point there's a lot of confidence with the offense.”
A sacrifice fly, a run scored on a dropped ball by the left fielder, and a single by designed hitter Kody Clemens ultimately gave Texas the lead in the fifth and then seventh innings.
And, in another positive development, the bullpen was able to secure the victory after Malmin departed, with Beau Ridgeway striking out four hitters over two innings in replacement of Beau O’Hara, who walked the first batter he faced and fell behind the second before he was pulled from the game.
Unfortunately for Texas, the relief pitching just wasn’t there in San Marcos on Tuesday against Texas State.
In the eight inning, the ‘Horns took the lead thanks to a two-run home run by left fielder Travis Jones to push the lead to 9-5.
Reliever Chase Shugart had survived a bases-loaded jam in the sixth innings by limiting the damage to two runs, but faded in the eighth in allowing four consecutive singles. A steady performance from Ridgeway got Texas out of the inning.
Then another disastrous appearance by Kyle Johnston struck the ‘Horns once again — the junior didn’t record a single out in facing five batters. It wasn’t that he was giving up extra-base hits, merely that he couldn’t find the strike zone again and wasn’t really fooling anyone, either, during a stretch that included three straight singles.
The three runs scored by the Bobcats in the inning tied the game and then Parker Joe Robinson did his best Johnston impression by hitting a batter, walking another, and giving up the game-winning single.
To sum things up, there are a number of pitchers not performing close to their respective talent levels at this time and that has made it extremely difficult to effectively close out games, as numerous potential victories have turned into dispiriting losses.
Pitchers like Johnston, Mayes, and Shugart have all struggled recently, though there have been a handful of success stories like Malmin, Ridgeway, and the emergence of Nolan Kingham as the Friday starter.
For the team to survive the crucible of conference play, however, Pierce has to find ways to consistently close out games, with Ridgeway emerging as the most reliable option in recent games.
As the Longhorns enter a critical stretch of winnable games, Kansas State will come to Austin for a three-game series that could ultimately determine whether this team is good enough to make the postseason — short of winning the Big 12 tournament, the margin of error is getting increasingly thin as the losses mount.