After the first trip to the College World Series for the Texas Longhorns in years, the baseball program will once again have a target on its back as it faces familiar expectations — Omaha or bust.
Matching last season’s success won’t necessarily be an easy task, either, as head coach David Pierce’s team overachieved by all accounts in his second season and must now replace numerous key contributors.
That team’s superstar, Kody Clemens, is set to start his first full season as a professional. Two of the three starters are gone, too, along with two of the most reliable relief pitchers. Rising shortstop David Hamilton, expected to be the offensive catalyst and defensive anchor up the middle, is out for the season thanks to a torn Achilles suffered while riding an electric scooter.
So there are significant question marks facing the No. 24 Longhorns, who start the season by traveling to Lafayette to face off against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, kicking off a non-conference schedule that will provide significant perspective on this team’s strengths and weaknesses.
So Texas will need senior infielder Mason Hibbeler to step into a larger role offensively, as well as senior centerfielder Duke Ellis, sophomore designed hitter Zach Zubia, and junior right fielder Austin Todd. The expectations are particularly high for Zubia, who has tremendous power, and Todd, who missed most of the 2018 season with injuries.
Among the young players, freshman Eric Kennedy has worked his way into the starting lineup thanks to a promising combination of speed and power, while fellow freshman Bryce Reagan will receive the first opportunity to replace Hamilton at shortstop.
The pitching staff features plenty of talent, but few proven arms, so Pierce plans on shorter outings for the starters unless four pitchers emerge to take on larger roles. Of particular importance will be junior Blair Henley, who started 16 games last season — he’s the only starter with significant experience. However, he’s had control issues in his career and it’s not clear whether he can take the next step this season.
Last season, the Ragin’ Cajuns finished with a record of 34-25 and won the Sun Belt West Division. Louisiana is once again picked to win the division in 2019.
Friday’s game will feature a major challenge for Texas sophomore right-handed pitcher Bryce Elder, as the former reliever will face off against All-American senior right-hander Gunner Leger, who posted a 10-2 record and 1.97 ERA in 2017. Leger struck out 84 batters and held opponents to a .204 average that season, but sat out last year due to medical reasons.
Outfielder Daniel Lahare is a junior college transfer who made waves in his first season at Louisiana by leading the team in batting average (.321), OPS (.858), run scored (50), hits (69), triples (4), total bases (101) and slugging percentage (.470).
Prospective starting pitchers:
- Friday—Texas So. RHP Bryce Elder vs. Louisiana R-Sr. LHP Gunner Leger
- Saturday—Texas Jr. RHP Blair Henley vs. Louisiana Jr. RHP Brandon Young
- Sunday—Texas Fr. RHP Coy Cobb vs. Louisiana TBA
Friday’s game is on Cox Sports TV at 6:30 p.m. Central, while the games on Saturday and Sunday are both available on RaginCajuns.com. Saturday’s first pitch is at 2 p.m. Central, while Sunday’s game starts an hour earlier.
Texas leads the all-time series 13-7.