The past couple of weeks quickly went from “Is Texas going to make the regional?” to “Is Texas going to host the regional?” The identity and expectations for this team constantly fluctuated in David Pierce’s first season, but that uncertainty ultimately culminated into a pretty good regular season. Texas has earned a two-seed in the NCAA tournament after posting a solid 37-22 record.
This point in the year seemed like a good time for the BON baseball staff to reflect on the season that was, while looking forward to what will be.
I and BON veterans Abram Orlansky and Jeff Asher decided to discuss the state of the team before the Longhorns’ game with UCLA this Friday.
What surprised you most about this season?
Jack: I’m unfortunately going to go negative and say the low batting average. Zane Gurwitz and Patrick Mathis are beginning to hit their strides after their injuries, but its depressing to see how many offensive players have stagnated or regressed statistically. I was looking forward to Brett Boswell’s breakout season after he won MVP of the California Summer League, but the junior hit only .145 in conference play. Michael Cantu is hitting .213 overall after batting .214 last season and Kody Clemens is at .247 after hitting .242 a season ago. These are guys who were expected to make big leaps this season. As a team, Texas is hitting .256 (243rd in the nation) compared to (a still pretty bad) .267 last year.
Let’s end on a positive note by saying I am also thrilled by how improved Nick Kennedy, Beau Ridgeway, and Nolan Kingham are on the mound this year. That is David Pierce’s expertise clearly in action. Add that to the fact that Texas’ fielding percentage has improved from .963 to .983 and its easy to see why so many teams struggle to put runs up against the ‘Horns.
Abram: The main surprise for me was not in Austin specifically, but just how excellent the Big 12 turned out to be. A conference with only nine teams, the Big 12 has seven in the NCAA Tournament. One of those is gate-crasher Oklahoma State, but there was buzz that KU could sneak in with an at-large if Texas had beaten OSU for the Big 12 title. In any event, the conference has the same number of participants as the 14-team SEC and has the highest Conference RPI in the nation. That's really something.
Jeff: The biggest surprise for me was how amazing so many of the freshmen were. David Hamilton struggled in the field in the Big 12 tournament but his bat has come on of late and he could be one of the best shortstops to ever grace the 40 Acres when all is said and done. Only getting 29 starts from senior leader Zane Gurwitz? No worries, Austin Todd can step in and nearly hit .300 and played great center field. Ryan Reynolds struggled in May (14 walks and hits combined, 20 strikeouts, .143 BA) but his freshman campaign was a success and he and Hamilton were terrific on the left side of the infield. You can also throw in Michael McCann -- who had only started four games in his first two years in the program -- exceeding all expectations when Michael Cantu struggled.
Texas may struggle in 2018 if half the team leaves for the draft and graduation but if these freshmen continue to improve then there may yet be hope for David Pierce's second year.
Overall I would give Pierce a __ grade for his performance this year
Jack: B+. Texas baseball didn’t need a savior to salvage the program, just a leader. The team had been sputtering, but the Texas name still held prestige and the talent was certainly there on the roster. David Pierce hasn’t instituted revolutionary changes, but he’s righted a ship that simply needed to be guided in the proper direction. We’ve seen how far things can go south in football, so a returning to normalcy in baseball is all Texas fans could ever ask for. The turnaround hasn’t been anything crazy — It’s less errors on routine plays. It’s swinging with confidence instead of dropping sac bunts.
These little things at up, and a 12 game improvement is nothing to scoff at. Texas baseball is pretty fun again, and when Pierce gets “his guys” on campus, it may become really fun.
Abram: B+. It was a very solid first-year effort for Pierce. I would reserve an A rating for far exceeding expectations, and I can't say this team necessarily did that. But my hope at the beginning of the season was to be in the regional-hosting discussion (not necessarily to actually host), and Texas was in it.
Jeff: I'll give Pierce a B++ only because I wanted to give him a B+ but saw Abram's grade and needed to one up him. It's really hard to tell what more Pierce could have done and I don't have any specific complaints, but the team was 8-15 in one run games and shouldn't the manager share at least some of the blame for that? Texas isn't hosting so he can't get an 'A' but the Horns were maybe 1 or 2 losses away from hosting so he deserves nearly an 'A'. Texas played an absurdly tough schedule and beat Texas A&M. B++ though I deserve the right to adjust if the Horns win a title.
How far do you expect Texas to go in the postseason?
Jack: Can teams who play Texas’ brand of baseball out Texas Texas? That is the question. The Longhorns’ region is full of dominant pitching and mediocre hitting, which should result in tightly contested match-ups. Game 1 against UCLA will dictate how the rest of Texas’ postseason goes in my opinion. Texas is a better team than UCLA (the ‘Horns swept the Bruins this year), but the Bruins will be starting Griffin Canning, who will be a first round pick in a month.
I don’t underestimate Long Beach State, but I think if the ‘Horns get over the UCLA hump, they will be in business. Texas has a small, but impactful group of seniors who have experience in the College World Series -- Kacy Clemens and Zane Gurwitz will be reliable anchors in the batting order. The ‘Horns also have a plethora of starting pitching talent which is conducive to a tourney run.
I think the Longhorns’ middle relieving troubles and lackluster offense keeps them out of Omaha, but I predict they will make the supers if they can take down UCLA in the opener.
Abram: It's funny, because you can look at Texas' tournament draw in one of two ways. You can be upset that the committee, in choosing between whether Baylor or Texas got to stay close to home in the Houston regional, gave that perk to the Bears. Or you can look at the teams in Houston and those in Long Beach and think Texas was given a more winnable regional. I tend toward the latter view. UCLA is no slouch of a three seed, of course, but Texas did sweep them earlier this year in Austin. I think the home-standing Dirt Bags will have perhaps the least helpful home crowd of any regional host, although it's close between them and Stanford, with whose regional the Long Beach group is paired.
So I'd expect the Longhorns to handle UCLA Friday and give LBSU all they want on Saturday. If they win the first two, I don't see anyone else in this field taking two in a row from Texas to win the thing. So let's be optimistic! Texas wins the regional, and Cal State-Fullerton upsets Stanford as well. The NCAA names Texas as the super regional host, and people actually show up to the Disch for the Augie Garrido's Two Schools Showdown. Texas takes two of three at home and goes to Omaha as a surprise participant, where they go a respectable 1-2 and look to build toward next year.
Jeff: Texas has three solid starters, a fourth who showed this week he can be very solid, and a lineup that produced more nights than they didn't this year. That's enough to make the CWS with a little luck. 2014 happened because Texas got put in a very winnable bracket, didn't have to go to Baton Rouge and avoided national seeds early in Omaha.
Would you be shocked if Texas wins the Long Beach regional, Cal State Fullerton wins in Stanford, Texas gets revenge for 2004 in Austin and heads to Omaha to face...ah crap...Oregon State? Neither would I. Would you be shocked if Texas gets into trouble early in the Long Beach regional and doesn't have the reliable bullpen depth to escape? Me neither.
I'll predict Horns going 3-2 in Long Beach before falling to the eventual hosts in a scrappy elimination game.
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Expect more NCAA tournament coverage in the coming days, including a preview of Texas vs. UCLA. The ‘Horns will take on the Bruins at 6 pm CST on Friday in Long Beach.