“We’re just grinders,” Texas Longhorns second baseman Kody Clemens said. “Sometimes we start out the game behind by two or three runs. Everyone just keeps their nose on the ground and fights back and gets runs on the board. We just don’t stop. We don’t stop hitting, and we’re not going to stop hitting.”
Following a series-deciding Sunday win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders that included a game-tying home run by Clemens, his third of the weekend, the quote from the team’s leader and best player summarizes the 2018 season for the Horns.
Led by 16 home runs from Clemens and 10 home runs from designated hitter Zach Zubia, Texas finally has a high-powered offense once again and it’s helping carry a pitching that struggles to consistently throw strikes, especially on the back end.
For all the grittiness and comeback ability shown by David Pierce’s team this season, it’s still inconsistent enough to lose two of three games against the likes of West Virginia and Kansas State, two of the Big 12’s worst programs.
In all likelihood, the team’s postseason seeding and ultimate fate will come down to the pitching staff.
Weekend starters Nolan Kingham, Chase Shugart, and Blair Henley have all been inconsistent this season, with Kingham allowing a team-high eight home runs and Shugart and Henley both struggling at times with command.
Shugart’s Saturday loss against the Red Raiders was all too typical of his season, which has produced a 5.17 ERA — he walked five of the 24 batters he faced and gave up eight earned runs on only six hits.
The other concern is finding a fourth starter for the NCAA Tournament. Last week, Pierce admitted that he doesn’t know who would assume that role if necessary.
“If you’re asking who’s going to be a fourth starter right now, I have no idea,” Pierce said. We’re still waiting on that. I would probably say it would be a short leash for whoever started.”
Beyond the three weekend starters, Pierce has used seven different pitchers to start games this season, with Nico O’Donnell receiving the most opportunities at seven. However, like much of the staff, the freshman has struggled with his command, allowing 22 walks in 32 innings of work.
Fellow freshman Kamron Fields has had some promising moments, as reflected in his 2.25 ERA, which ranks second on the team, but he’s also had issues finding the strike zone, allowing 17 walks in only 20 innings.
The issues have put Pierce in an unusual position.
“I’ve never had to piece it the way we’re piecing it,” he said. “It’s just what it is right now. We’ve got two 23 year-olds in the back end who haven’t pitched in two years. We have a young man from Italy that’s a JC kid, first year here. Then we have a lot of freshmen that are trying to fill a role.”
Key missing pieces help explain the struggles, like prospective back-end relievers Donny Diaz and Cole Quintanilla, who haven’t pitched this season due to injuries. Tristan Stevens has only appeared in two games, throwing just 2.1 innings.
The struggles of last season’s closer, Beau Ridgeway, have complicated the situation. After a solid freshman season, Ridgeway was a revelation during Pierce’s first season in Austin, recording a 1.89 ERA as he recorded 12 saves and held opponents to a .189 batting average.
This season, however, Ridgeway has an ERA of 11.32, as batters have hit three home runs and scored 26 earned runs against him in only 20.2 innings of work.
The emergence of three pitchers has helped keep Texas in the mix to win a regular season title — Parker Joe Robinson, Andy McGuire, and Matteo Bocchi. Each of them have a unique story.
Robinson appeared in only 10 games over his first three seasons in Austin and his transition into the David Pierce era was not an easy one.
“Honestly, I tried to take his scholarship away from him because I didn’t think he could pitch here,” Pierce said.
Instead of giving up, Robinson convinced his head coach to give him a chance and Pierce recommended a change to lower his arm slot. After Robinson dropped his delivery, he abandoned his change-up and spitter in favor of a sinker-slider reportroire.
The change began to pay off last season before Robinson emerged as the team’s set-up man this year — the California native’s 1.59 ERA in 15 appearances leads the team and few pitching performances have been as impressive as holding Texas Tech to one run on Sunday when he entered the game with the bases loaded and no outs.
His control has also been a benefit, as he’s only walked six batters in 22.2 innings of work, in sharp contrast to much of the pitching staff.
From Italy, Bocchi has represented his country in the Little League World Series and become the first Italian-born player in program history, making for a truly remarkable story. He’s also been one of the more reliable relief pitchers, winning all three of his decisions and recording a 3.68 ERA, though he has also struggled with his command at times.
The story of Andy McGuire is remarkable, too. He was a highly-ranked player out of high school, starting some at third base in 2015 and then appearing in 13 games as a pitcher the following season. After two years away from the program, McGuire returned and has emerged as the closer with seven saves and a 2.45 ERA in 20 appearances.
Following a week off for finals, Texas will have four more opportunities to earn a regional bid for the first time since 2011, with home games against Texas State and TCU.
The Horned Frogs have struggled this season, winning just 7 of 16 games away from Fort Worth. This isn’t the same team that has appeared in four consecutive College World Series, but it is a top-75 team in RPI.
The challenge for the Longhorns is proving that it can cause some waves in the postseason by taking care of business to close out the regular season.
There will probably be some walks handed out, but the team will back it up with good defense and keep grinding at the plate. Clemens and his teammates have been doing that all season and it has made for some remarkable performances.