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West Virginia series showed Texas baseball’s weaknesses and upside

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From blown leads and errors to the success of two key freshmen, the Longhorns were entirely on brand over the weekend.

Lance Ford (right) celebrates his Sunday success with a teammate.
Texas baseball

More of the same, in all the key ways.

The Texas Longhorns hosted the No. 17 West Virginia Mountaineers at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in a key series over the weekend, with the two come-from-ahead losses and the Sunday blowout effectively encapsulating a disappointing season that won’t result in an NCAA Tournament bid unless the Horns quickly reverse recent results to close out the season or gain eligibility into and win the Big 12 Tournament.

On Friday, Texas sophomore right-hander Bryce Elder pitched brilliantly for 7.2 innings, allowing 13 strikeouts and only two hits. Unfortunately, one hit was a big blow, as pinch-hitter TJ Lake hit a two-run home run on the eighth pitch of his at bat.

Other significant stories happened offensively for Texas. Head coach David Pierce moved from the dugout to coaching third base after the Kansas State series two weeks ago, but wasn’t able to make a positive difference in the key second inning against West Virginia on Friday.

After Zach Zubia advanced to second base after a walk and a balk, he made a poor base-running decision when Tate Shaw pulled a ball to the right-field wall. Instead of ensuring that he could score by getting himself into position to score on a hit, Zubia stuck close to the base and was thrown out at home when Pierce compounded the mistake by sending the slow-footed runner.

The situation illustrated the type of issues that happen for a team struggling to win — a hard-hit ball that nearly left the field of play but didn’t, a poor base-running decision by the slowest player in the lineup, and a poor decision by the head coach at third base as he presses to turn things around.

More bad luck followed in the seventh inning when Duke Ellis singled with two outs and Masen Hibbeler nearly hit a home run that was caught near the wall in left field thanks to a brilliant play by West Virginia. Call that four potential runs taken off the board by a matter of feet.

In addition to taking advantage of the mistake by Elder in the eighth inning, West Virginia further capitalized on a bad pitch by Matteo Bocchi in the ninth inning for a go-ahead home run. Bocchi was in the position to earn a save because of recent struggles by stoppers Cole Quintanilla and Kamron Fields. An Italian-born pitcher, Bocchi entered the game without a run allowed in nearly a month, the team’s lowest ERA overall, and without giving up a home run all season.

The bottom line is that West Virginia took advantage of a small number of mistakes by the Texas pitching staff and the Longhorns had some poor luck in missing two near home runs, with the first mistake compounded by Zubia’s lack of awareness and Pierce’s poor decision to send him home. In the brutal game of baseball, the small margins between winning and losing often look like Friday’s game.

However, there was a major positive, as freshman left fielder Eric Kennedy scored both runs because he reached base on four hits in four at bats. After seven hits against West Virginia, Kennedy is now hitting .307 on the season. He looks like a future star.

On Saturday, there were more significant signs of why Texas ultimately lost a sixth game in a row.

Of the nine runs given up the Longhorns in the game, only six were earned. Hibbeler made two of the three errors that contributed to all that unearned damage for starter Blair Henley by airmailing routine throws from his shortstop position. The third error featured Zubia, who has only played a handful of games at first base in two years because of his defensive deficiencies, failing to handle another poor throw from Hibbeler.

Consider that Hibbeler is only starting at shortstop because David Hamilton tore his Achilles before the season while riding a scooter and Bryce Reagan has also struggled, both in the field and at the plate. Zubia was playing first base because of the season-ending surgery that DJ Petrinsky underwent after playing the position to open the season and Pierce’s desire to press for some answers in the lineup.

Last year, Petrinsky mostly played catcher before moving to first this season as a result of his shoulder injury. A strong team on the base paths, West Virginia challenged Petrinsky’s replacement Michael McCann on Saturday by stealing five bases — on six attempts, McCann was only able to cut down one runner.

During that game, then, the most significant failures for Texas were all related to the two key injuries of Hamilton and Petrinsky. Six runs on errors and five bases on steals. Overcoming such significant mistakes is extremely difficult.

Fortunately, the Sunday game provided another positive look towards a potential future for the Longhorns.

In the 10-2 victory, freshman second baseman Lance Ford hit the first two home runs of his career, including a grand slam in the sixth inning. He’s now tied for second on the team with a .278 batting average, even though Ford is playing largely because of Hamilton’s injury and Reagan’s inability to step in as the starting shortstop.

On the mound, freshman right-hander Ty Madden had the second-longest outing of his career in throwing six innings, scattering six hits and allowing a single earned run in the process, along with three strikeouts. For Madden moving forward, the hope is that his shoulder will continue to recover and afford him the velocity that helped him strike out seven batters in seven innings against Stanford in early March.

So, from some bad luck to mistakes typical of this season to promising performances by freshmen, the weekend series loss to West Virginia highlighted the worst of this current team and the potential it has moving forward.